On 11 August 1965, a 21-year-old black man, was arrested for drunk driving near the Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood. The ensuing and violent struggle during his arrest sparked off 6 days of rioting, resulting in over 1,000 injuries, nearly 4,000 arrests, 34 deaths, and the destruction of property valued at $40 million.
One morning, during the riots, on my way to downtown LA for a meeting the police stopped my car. Two other telephone company business representatives were riding with me–a white woman (married to a black man) and a young black woman. The police yanked the black passenger from my car, pinned her against it, handcuffed her, and repeatedly banged her head against the rooftop. I screamed at them to stop. They told me to shut up or they’d do the same to me. “She’s done nothing wrong,” I pleaded with the officers. “None of us have. We’re just riding to work,” I reasoned, asking them to please let her go. They muttered something to each other, shrugged shoulders, and released her. We got back into the car. Still shaking, I steered it slowly forward. In a split second my world changed. As my eyes focused, I realized that justice didn’t exist if you were a person of color in LA in 1965.
I was 20 at the time, had a well-paying job, a nice home, a new car, plenty of money in the bank for groceries, dining out… but as I watched black neighborhoods burn and listened to desperate people cry for help on the evening news, I knew I needed to do something to help. But what?
On 17 August 1965, Martin Luther King arrived in Los Angeles following the riots to address the growing problems facing black people in the nation’s urban areas. He spoke publicly about the general despair of thousands of Negroes teeming in ghettos, about their economic deprivation, their social isolation, their inadequate housing, and warned that this despair would lead to more tragic expressions of violence unless something changed.
Deep inside me something did change. Martin Luther King’s message echoed in my ears for months, urging me to move from my comfortable world and reach out to others less fortunate, to learn about the big world around me. The Watts Riots and Martin Luther King’s words grabbed my attention, stirred my senses, and inspired me to make the world a better place. I began volunteering and mentoring.
On 21 October 1968, I left my home in LA to travel abroad—to broaden my horizon, see for myself how people in other cultures live, and more importantly discover who I was born to be.