Our upcoming production of The Less Than Human Club is set in the year 1968 so there's been a lot of talk around the theatre about the history, culture, music, movies, and even the fashion of that era. My parents met in that turbulant year so I thought I'd give them a call to gain some perspective on what it was like. That conversation turned out to be very meaningful and I have the theatre to thank for sparking me to ask questions of my father that I never thought to ask before. I knew the basics. He served in the National Guard from 1962 until 1968 and I knew he had not gone to Vietnam, but I wasn't exactly sure what he did or why.
My father was just 18 when he joined the National Guard. His brother-in-law and his friend were doing it, so why not. He grew up poor in Indianapolis and the Guard seemed like a way forward. Even in 1962, no one could forsee the turmoil that the nation would erupt into toward the end of the decade. He served for 5 and half years, first in Indiana and then later in California. The most stunning thing I learned during our conversation was that he was one of the Guardsman rolling down the streets of Los Angeles during the Watts Riots of 1965. The six-day riot resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests, and over $50 million in property damage. He didn't give me a lot of details, but to say that it was a "confusing time." When they were sent in, he had no idea why people were behaving that way. At the time, it made no sense to him for people to destroy the place where they lived. It was only later my father would come to understand why/how it happened. Here's a summary of the situation from PBS.org:
With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, race relations seemed to be headed in the right direction. However, states acted to circumvent the new federal law, including California that created Proposition 14, which moved to block the fair housing section of the Act. This created anger and a feeling of injustice within the inner cities.
On August 11, 1965, Los Angeles's South Central neighborhood of Watts became a scene of the greatest example of racial tension America had seen. A Los Angeles police officer pulled over motorist Marquette Frye [who was with his brother Ronald]; he suspected Marquette of driving drunk. While officers questioned them, a crowd of onlookers had begun to form. When Rena Frye, the boys mother showed up, a struggle ensued which led to the arrest of all 3 members of the Frye family. More officers had arrived on the scene and had hit the brothers with their batons. The crowd had grown and by this point had become angry. After the police left the scene, the crowd & tension escalated and sparked the riots, which lasted 6 days.
[There's also a very telling newsreeal available to watch: Universal Newsreel: Troops Patrol L.A.  from the National Archives]
After the end of my father's five and a half year committment to the National Guard, he applied and was accepted for officer training in San Francisco. It was 1968 and the world was uneasy. The beginning of that year saw the the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong launch the Tet Offensive. Although militarily the operation was a failure, it was a propaganda victory for the communists. On the home front, the American public was shocked by the images they were seeing on their televisions. My Dad saw those images too, and decided not to go to Officer Candidate School. Instead, he met my Mom and 2 years later they were married.
I never knew it until now, but without all the violence and unrest of 1968, my Dad may have never met my Mom and there would be no me. And more importantly, what would the world be like today without people rising up for change back then? The things theatre can teach us never cease to amaze me.
-Traci Brant, Artistic Chair