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HISTORIC ARTICLE

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HISTORIC ARTICLE

Jun 3, 1943 CE: Zoot Suit Riots

Jun 3, 1943 CE: Zoot Suit Riots

On June 3, 1943, the Zoot Suit Riots broke out between Latinx and white communities in Los Angeles, California.

Grades

4 - 12

Subjects

Social Studies, U.S. History

















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On June 3, 1943, the “Zoot Suit Riots” broke out in the United States' city of Los Angeles, California. The riots were a series of conflicts between the white and Latinx communities of the area during World War II.

The ten days of violence had roots in a demographic shift in Southern California and a racist backlash. As white men were drafted into the armed forces to bolster the war effort, Mexican immigrants were encouraged to fill the gaps in the fields and factories. At this time, resources were rationed, including wool. This prohibited the making of zoot suits, a counterculture fashion statement marked by loose pants and long coattails.

White military servicemen and police officers had engaged in sporadic, but consistent, conflict with members of the Latinx (predominantly Mexican American) and African American communities in Los Angeles for years. The “zoot suits” popular with young men of color became a symbol of this conflict—many in the white community thought the flamboyant suits flouted wartime rationing of fabric. Some troops claimed to have been robbed and harassed earlier by “zoot suiters.”

Off-duty police calling themselves the “Vengeance Squad” joined military personnel in attacking Latinx youngsters, beating them then stripping off their zoot suits. Some of the youth were dragged out of movie theaters and cafes.

Meanwhile, on-duty police officers mostly looked the other way when the zoot-suiters were attacked. And when the victims fought back, they were often arrested. By the end of the week, more than 500 Latinx and African-American youths had been arrested. Though no one was killed, scores were hospitalized, hurt by the use of makeshift weapons.

The U.S. military confined all sailors and Marines to their barracks. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote about the riots in her weekly newspaper column: “The question goes deeper than just the suits. It is a racial protest.”

Although the Zoot Suit Riots were quelled fairly quickly in Los Angeles, the “racial protest” they inspired did not fade. Protests spread to other U.S. cities: New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit. Civil rights leaders, such as Cesar Chavez and Malcolm X, wore zoot suits in their youth. The outfit’s popularity and the events of 1943 influenced both men’s style and activism.

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National Geographic Society
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National Geographic Society
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Last Updated

September 14, 2023

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