June 3, 1943: A group of 50-60 from the Los Angeles Naval Reserve Armory attacked anyone perceived to be Hispanic, starting the week-long Zoot Suit Riots.
What is a Zoot Suit?
A man’s suit of an exaggerated style, characterized by a long, loose jacket with padded shoulders and high-waisted tapering trousers, popular in the 1940s. This style was particularly popular among the Latino, African American, Italian American, and Filipino American communities during the 1940s.
The Underlying Tensions
Latino youths in California known as “pachucos” often wore flashy zoot suits, porkpie hats and dangling watch chains and were increasingly viewed by affluent whites as menacing street thugs, gang members and rebellious juvenile delinquents. Added to those racially fuelled fears, war time restrictions made certain fabrics scarce and servicemen, in particular, viewed the oversized zoot suits as a flagrant and unpatriotic waste of resources. (History.com)
By 1943, Southern California was teeming was servicemen. Up to 50,000 servicemen could be found in L.A. on any given weekend. Clashes among servicemen and L.A.’s largest minority group (250,000 Mexicans- including many enlisted Mexican Americans) were becoming more frequent.
May 31: Twelve sailors and soldiers clashed violently with a group of Mexican American boys. Seaman Second Class Joe Dacy Coleman, U.S.N., was badly wounded.
June 3: Approximately 50 sailors left the Naval Reserve Armory with concealed weapons to revenge the attack on Coleman. They targeted the neighbourhoods near the Armory and attacked anyone wearing zoot suits. Thereby, giving birth to the title “Zoot Suit Riots“; a name far more entrenched in racial tension than in fashion.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt summed it up well when she stated that the riots were caused by “race problems.” She expressed her concern about the treatment of Mexican Americans in the states on the border with Mexico. Many contested the First Lady’s statements as they did not want to address the issue of race, preferring instead to use the excuse of delinquency and disaffected youth.
For more photos and details on the riots and the eventual outcome: