The Precursor to the Creation of ABSW-Los Angeles
It is no accident that “race riots” are more apt to occur during economic downturns. In part the 1965 uprising was fueled by the high level of unemployment in our communities: (3x times the national average); young black males suffered even higher unemployment levels in Watts. While in the South, blacks had made some gains in public accommodations, and integrated education, some new avenues to jobs, African Americans in the North were very frustrated by the slow progress in education, employment, and housing. Watts was an excellent example of the hardships. In the 60’s, Los Angeles and big northern cities continued to operated as a two-tier labor market. By that I mean that ethnic and racial minorities were relegated to the lower tier. Their jobs were dangerous, poorly paid, and cyclical. Watts was geographical isolated from mainstream Los Angeles and better paying jobs because of the poor public transportation. And of course, racism seriously impacted the job market in subtle ways.
I came to Watts in January, 1966. Persons often wonder why Watts was the first black community to set a blaze of protest. I know I was. Once I was working in Watts I could understand why. Other black communities like the Southside of Chicago, Harlem, and East Philly had a strong sense of community. There was a feeling of pride and cohesiveness in these black communities. These communities had cultural and physical assets that drew others to them. One came to the Southside of Chicago to go to the Club DeLiso to hear the Blues and the Jazz. One went to the Eastside of Detroit to The Flame to hear Dinah Washington and Laceef Latrec. And so it was with many black communities in the North and in the South.
This was not true for Watts—Watts was bereft of most the amenities necessary to build a strong sense of community and a sense of pride. There was no hospital; sick persons had to travel at least 10 miles to the nearest general hospital. There were no movie theatres, no nice restaurants; public transportation was poorly planned and nonexistent in some areas. No one came to Watts to listen to jazz or the Blues. The hip part of the black community was South Central L.A. where the Dunbar Hotel and the Club 54 were located. As in many other low-income communities, the schools were failing to provide an adequate education —and this was at a time when California was praised nationally for its superior public school system.
In 1966, the community was still smoldering from the riots, vacant lots dotted the area where stores and homes once stood. Much of the social welfare system was held in disdain by the residents; public welfare, child welfare, parole officers and juvenile probation officers were often seen as the enemy. The “helping professions” were more intent on containing the discontent in the community than fighting for social justice. Social workers and others were viewed as agents of the status quo, the gatekeepers. The people of the community felt defeated, angry, scared, and at the same time willing to fight for change.
LAPD was notorious then as it is now. We had Mayor Sam Yorty and Chief of Police Parker — stalwarts of the status quo and guardians of white supremacy. Though, we had some black politicians their numbers were small and they had minimal effect on the political climate in California. Watts and other northern black communities had reaped few benefits from the Civil Rights Movement. Every social institution in our community served the white establishment and not us. We did have the War on Poverty programs and this gave us hope in the beginning, ultimately it turned out to be false hope. In the beginning, the War on Poverty created supervisory and administrative jobs which gave African Americans the opportunity to manage agencies and create administrative policies. For by 1960, there were a sizeable number of blacks who had B.A. and Master’s degrees. Thus when the doors open to allow us to move up to managerial jobs, we were ready for leadership roles.
Social Welfare System
The War on Poverty brought more social workers into low income black communities. Through the proliferation of poverty programs, black social workers had gotten the opportunity to manage agencies and oversee big budgets, but also realized that the profession was not helping to produce fundamental changes. The social work profession continued to imply that the poor minorities were to blame for the dismal state of their communities. We, black social workers, knew this was untrue. Black social workers also became aware that the profession had simply taught us to be the gatekeepers and not really the advocates for change. University faculties continued to make money and gain tenure by doing research on us—with us coming out as pathological and the reason for our own sorry position in American society.
This was the climate that propelled a group of five MSW social workers: Shirley Better, Leonard Mackerel, Barbara Williams, Horace Austin, and Georgia Parks to community action. The first meeting to form ABSW was held at Central City Mental Health Clinic in April, 1968. We were stunned by the huge turnouts. From this initial meeting, the fledgling Association of Black Social Workers of Greater Los Angeles planned with other black social workers around the country to protest at the National Conference on Social Welfare in San Francisco in 1968. Out of that protest, the formation of the National Association of Black Social Workers was created.
The High Points of Activities of ABSW-LA
I. The Black Parenting Institute of L.A.
II. Directory of Black Social Services
III. Purchase of our building in 1978.
What are we doing now?
We continue to reach out to the Black community by using our skills in community organization and social policy.
In the last two years, we have had the following activities:
Four Forums: Two on Gentrification and what it means for the Black Community of Los Angeles. Both were very well received.
A Forum on HIV-AIDS by Dr. Derrick Butler, who is an expert in this area and head of the treatment Clinic right down the street from our building.
Forum on Sex Trafficking.
We regularly invite Black Professionals to provide lectures on their area of expertise.
In closing, I invite you to join us in our outreach. We are planning for another Forum on Sex Trafficking and we are open to other relevant topics. So come join us by paying your dues and becoming involved.