American Proscenium

Fire-Breathing Cowards

In 1963, when I was a junior in high school, Saturday-night dances were held at an old beach club near the Santa Monica pier.  The club had once been exclusive and elegant but had long fallen on hard times, and its ballroom was rented for various functions.  At first, most of those going to the dances, reflecting the demographics of the surrounding areas, were white.  This was especially true when surf bands were featured at the dances.  In 1963, surf music was at its peak of popularity and did its best to fill the vacuum created by the demise of the great rock ’n’ roll of the 50’s.  As the weeks went by, different black groups also played the dances; soon, black teenagers were making the drive out the new Santa Monica freeway, which intersected the coast highway precisely at the club.

Friction developed almost immediately.  The blacks expressed the opinion that particular Saturday-night dances were exclusively their affairs.  Any whites wanting to enter the dance had to make their way through a parking lot filled with dozens of loitering black gang members and then run a gauntlet of blacks lining the walkway to the entrance of the ballroom.  Whites, often with dates, or with only a friend or two, were at a disadvantage.  A senior from our high school was jumped by a half-dozen black gang members and beaten to a pulp.  The blacks let it be known that other whites...

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