The Zoot Suit Riots were a series of violent clashes during which mobs of U.S. servicemen, off-duty police officers and civilians brawled with young Latinos and other minorities in Los Angeles. The June 1943 riots took their name from the baggy suits worn by many minority youths during that era, but the violence was more about racial tension than fashion.
What Is a Zoot Suit?
During the 1930s, dance halls were popular venues for socializing, swing dancing and easing the economic stress of the Great Depression. Nowhere was this more true than in the uptown Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem, home of the famed Harlem Renaissance.
Style-conscious Harlem dancers began wearing loose-fitting clothes that accentuated their movements. Men donned baggy trousers with cuffs carefully tapered to prevent tripping; long jackets with heavily padded shoulders and wide lapels; long, glittering watch chains; and hats ranging from porkpies and fedoras to broad-brimmed sombreros.
The image of these so-called “zoot suits” spread quickly and was popularized by performers such as Cab Calloway, who, in his Hepster’s Dictionary, called the zoot suit “the ultimate in clothes. The only totally and truly American civilian suit.”
‘A Badge of Delinquency’
As the zoot suit became more popular among young men in African American, Mexican American and other minority communities, the clothes garnered a somewhat racist reputation. Latino youths in California known as “pachucos”—often wearing flashy zoot suits, porkpie hats and dangling watch chains—were increasingly viewed by affluent whites as menacing street thugs, gang members and rebellious juvenile delinquents.
Wartime patriotism didn’t help matters: After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II, wool and other textiles were subject to strict rationing. The U.S. War Production Board regulated the production of civilian clothing containing silk, wool and other essential fabrics.
Despite these wartime restrictions, many bootleg tailors in Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere continued to make the popular zoot suits, which used profligate amounts of fabric. Servicemen and many other people, however, saw the oversized suits a flagrant and unpatriotic waste of resources.
The local media was only too happy to fan the flames of racism and moral outrage: On June 2, 1943, the Los Angeles Times reported: “Fresh in the memory of Los Angeles is last year’s surge of gang violence that made the ‘zoot suit’ a badge of delinquency. Public indignation seethed as warfare among organized bands of marauders, prowling the streets at night, brought a wave of assaults, [and] finally murders.”
The Zoot Suit Riots Begin
In the summer of 1943, tensions ran high between zoot-suiters and the large contingent of white sailors, soldiers and Marines stationed in and around Los Angeles. Mexican Americans were serving in the military in high numbers, but many servicemen viewed the zoot-suit wearers as World War II draft dodgers (though many were in fact too young to serve in the military).
On May 31, a clash between uniformed servicemen and Mexican American youths resulted in the beating of a U.S. sailor. Partly in retaliation, on the evening of June 3, about 50 sailors from the local U.S. Naval Reserve Armory marched through downtown Los Angeles carrying clubs and other crude weapons, attacking anyone seen wearing a zoot suit or other racially identified clothing.
In the days that followed, the racially charged atmosphere in Los Angeles exploded in a number of full-scale riots. Mobs of U.S. servicemen took to the streets and began attacking Latinos and stripping them of their suits, leaving them bloodied and half-naked on the sidewalk. Local police officers often watched from the sidelines, then arrested the victims of the beatings.
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Thousands more servicemen, off-duty police officers and civilians joined the fray over the next several days, marching into cafes and movie theaters and beating anyone wearing zoot-suit clothing or hairstyles (duck-tail haircuts were a favorite target and were often cut off). Blacks and Filipinos—even those not clad in zoot suits—were also attacked.
The Rioting Spreads
By June 7, the rioting had spread outside downtown Los Angeles to Watts, East Los Angeles and other neighborhoods. Taxi drivers offered free rides to servicemen to rioting areas, and thousands of military personnel and civilians from San Diego and other parts of Southern California converged on Los Angeles to join the mayhem.
Leaders of the Mexican American community implored state and local officials to intervene, but their pleas met with little action. One eyewitness, writer Carey McWilliams, painted a terrifying picture:
“On Monday evening, June seventh, thousands of Angelenos … turned out for a mass lynching. Marching through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, a mob of several thousand soldiers, sailors, and civilians, proceeded to beat up every zoot-suiter they could find. Street cars were halted while Mexicans, and some Filipinos and Negroes, were jerked out of their seats, pushed into the streets, and beaten with sadistic frenzy.”
Some of the most disturbing violence was clearly racist in nature: According to several reports, a black defense plant worker—still wearing his defense-plant identification badge—was yanked off a streetcar, after which one of his eyes was gouged out with a knife.
Aftermath of the Zoot Suit Riots
Local papers framed the racial attacks as a vigilante response to an immigrant crime wave, and police generally restricted their arrests to the Latinos who fought back. The riots didn’t die down until June 8, when U.S. military personnel were finally barred from leaving their barracks.
The Los Angeles City Council issued a ban on zoot suits the following day. Amazingly, no one was killed during the weeklong riot, but it wasn’t the last outburst of zoot suit-related racial violence. Similar incidents took place that same year in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit.
A Citizens’ Committee appointed by California Governor Earl Warren to investigate the Zoot Suit Riots convened in the weeks after the riot. The committee’s report found that, “In undertaking to deal with the cause of these outbreaks, the existence of race prejudice cannot be ignored.”
Additionally, the committee described the problem of juvenile delinquency youth as “one of American youth, not confined to any racial group. The wearers of zoot suits are not necessarily persons of Mexican descent, criminals or juveniles. Many young people today wear zoot suits.”
A Brief History of the Zoot Suit: Smithsonian.com.
Zoot Suit Riots: Pomona College Research Library [online].
Remembering the Zoot Suit Riots: California Historical Society.
Los Angeles Group Insists Riots Halt: The New York Times.
Youth Gangs Leading Cause of Delinquencies: Los Angeles Times. Accessed via web.viu.ca.
The Los Angeles “Zoot Suit Riots” Revisited: Mexican and Latin American Perspectives. Richard Griswold del Castillo, San Diego State University.