The Zoot Suit Riots
The summer of 1943 saw racial tensions explode in several American cities. White service personnel and civilians attacked racial minorities. Ostensibly, the violence was against men wearing clothes that demanded a lot of fabric at a time of wool rationing. This obscured the underlying issue which was racism directed mostly at Mexican-Americans and Mexicans.
The Zoot Suit
The fashion started with so-called “drape” suits favoured by African-American men in Harlem in the mid-1930s.
The zoot suit had wide shoulders, tapered trousers, and an extra long jacket. It was voluminous and ostentatious. A wide-brimmed hat and very long watch chain often completed the ensemble.
Alice Gregory, writing in The Smithsonian Magazine notes that “There was no one designer associated with the look, no department store where you could buy one. These were ad hoc outfits, regular suits bought two sizes too large and then creatively tailored to dandyish effect.”
By 1943, the United States was fully involved in the Second World War and rationing of cloth in support of the war effort was introduced. Some tailors found illicit ways of acquiring fabrics, so, wearing the capacious zoot suit was viewed as disloyal.
For many of the zoot suiters, wearing the outfit was an act of defiance against racial injustice and segregation.
The zoot suit name seems to be what’s called a nonsense reduplication that comes out of African-American slang. Other examples might be the heebie-jeebies or jeepers-creepers.
Another trigger for the riots of 1943 was the importation of workers. Men drafted into uniform left agriculture and other industries understaffed. The U.S. government turned to Mexico to fill the manpower gaps.
The large influx of temporary workers from Mexico into Texas, California, and Arizona was not welcomed by many Americans.
In a move that has a familiar ring to it today, anti-Latino sentiments were stirred up by politicians and newspapers accusing Mexicans of being involved in crime. This created a smoldering resentment among white people towards Mexicans; and a spark was soon found that caused it to burst into flames.
The Sleepy Lagoon Murder
In August 1942, José Díaz, 22, was found close to death near a reservoir locally known as the “sleepy lagoon” in southeast Los Angeles County. The young man died and the autopsy found he was drunk and his injuries might have been caused by having been struck by a car.
However, in the racially charged atmosphere, it was decided this was a deliberate killing and it must be the work of juvenile Latinos.
Hundreds of young people, many of them dressed in zoot suits, were arrested. Eventually, 22 young men were charged with the murder of Díaz. The prosecution leaned heavily on the unconventional dress of the defendants as evidence that they were socially deviant. Despite the absence of solid evidence of guilt, 17 of the young men were convicted and drew prison sentences ranging from life to a year.
As The Los Angeles Times later reported, “At trial, a sheriff’s captain testified that ‘the Mexican element’ had an innate ‘desire to use a knife or some lethal weapon. In other words, his desire is to kill, or, at least, let blood.’ ”
The guilty verdicts were unanimously reversed on appeal in October 1944 but, by then, the Sleepy Lagoon Murder had painted the zoot suiters as dangerous criminals.
The Tom and Jerry Cartoon Franchise Offered Zoot Cat in 1944
The Riots Begin
Minor altercations started to occur between white servicemen and zoot suiters; then they started to escalate.
By the first week of June 1943, the disturbances had become riots. Young men in zoot suits were tracked down and forced to disrobe or get beaten up.
Servicemen, mostly sailors armed with clubs, were determined to rid the streets of Los Angeles of what they claimed were violent Latino gangs. The police largely stood by and let the vigilantes do their work; some off-duty cops joined in the mayhem.
Some of the zoot suiters fought back and the situation spiralled out of control. On June 7, 1943, thousands of civilians joined the servicemen and rampaged through downtown L.A. When they couldn’t find zoot suiters they turned their venom on any visible minority. Police were forced to step in and make arrests.
Of course, most of those handcuffed and jailed were the victims. The L.A. City Council then passed an ordinance banning the wearing of zoot suits on the streets.
With the military men confined to barracks and the Latinos behind bars, calm descended on the city. But, the Los Angeles riots inspired, if that’s the right word, others in Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, and other communities.
The White House took notice and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt went to the root of the matter in her weekly newspaper column: “The question goes deeper than just the suits. It is a racial protest,” she wrote.
A California state inquiry bore out Eleanor Roosevelt’s reading of the events; racism was deemed to be at the heart of the conflicts that was made worse by biased media coverage. The police were also criticized for their inadequate response.
But the mayor, Fletcher Bowron, said prejudice was not a factor. It was all the fault of juvenile delinquents, he said.
Curators at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art went looking for an original zoot suit to exhibit. It was a search that lasted more than a decade and ended in 2011 with an $80,000-purchase at an auction.
Zoot suits became associated with jazz and were worn occasionally by Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Dizzie Gillespie, and others.
Black activist Malcolm X sometimes wore a zoot suit that he described as “a killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats, and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell.”
- “A Brief History of the Zoot Suit.” Alice Gregory, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2016
- “Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial.” Eduardo Obregón Pagán, Oxford Bibliographies, April 28, 2017.
- “Zoot Suit Riots: After 75 years, L.A. Looks Back on a Violent Summer.” Marisa Gerberm, Los Angeles Times, June 4, 2018.
- “The Zoot Suit Riots: When Fashion And Racism Erupted Into Violence.” Mark Oliver, allthatsinteresting.com, November 14, 2017
- “Jun 3, 1943 CE: Zoot Suit Riots.” National Geographic, undated.
- “Zoot Suit Riots.” George Coroian, Encyclopedia Britannica, May 27, 2019.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor