Teaching the Article
Exercise 4

Crime and the City: Urban Decline and the Politics of Rehabilitation

In the post–World War II years, white migrants to California were able to move into new suburban developments, which excluded African Americans through a variety of strategies. City officials in boomtowns such as Long Beach and Richmond quickly identified segregated black communities as “blighted.” City police departments were supposed to be channeling law breakers into prison for punishment and individual rehabilitation, while California cities contemplated the possibilities of “urban rehabilitation” with the aid of federal funds. Unemployment, overcrowding, and poor access to medical care, however, continued to plague California’s blacks and Latinos in highly segregated urban neighborhoods. At the time of the 1965 Watts riots, black Californians from Oakland to Compton had become fed up with police officers acting like occupying forces in neighborhoods that were increasingly cut off from the state’s overall prosperity.

The escalating urban crisis also undermined California’s goal of rehabilitation in its prisons. The latter could not alleviate the former; to the contrary, the urban crisis fed the desire for punishment, but it also revealed the similarities between prisons and ghettos for African American community leaders such as Bayard Rustin. In this changing social climate, rural residents dreaded the dangers prison camps allegedly posed, but they were reluctant to forego the economic benefits of these institutions. Heightening security in conservation centers and camps put residents at ease, but it did not resolve the tensions between local white residents and urban prisoners.


  1. How did Gov. Ronald Reagan describe the urban crisis to the National Sheriffs’ Association, and what solutions did he propose?
  2. What dangers did Brinton Stone describe, and who did he fear were the likely victims and perpetrators? What did Stone expect the state to do in response, and what alternative scenario did Stone warn of? Why do you think Stone make references to the Civil War?
  3. How did Bayard Rustin describe the ghetto, and how did he characterize the criminal justice system leading up to the Watts riots? What disagreements did he have with Los Angeles police chief William Parker’s characterization of the riots as the work of “the criminal element in Watts”?
  4. How did James Williams describe conditions in the Susanville facility that predated its closure in 1977?


  1. Ronald Reagan, Speech to the National Sheriff’s Association, June 19, 1967.
  2. Brinton H. Stone to Governor Ronald Reagan, Feb. 26, 1968, folder Riots June (2 of 2), box 1968/83, Correspondence Unit, Administration. Ronald Reagan Gubernatorial Records.
  3. Bayard Rustin, “The Watts ‘Manifesto’ & the McCone Report,” in Commentary, 41 (no. 3, 1966), 29–35.
  4. Letter from James Williams, Office of Former President, NAACP, Feb. 2, 1973, folder F3717:1780 Conservation Camp Services, California Conservation Center, Correspondence, 1972–76, Department of Corrections Records.