The Zoot Suit Riots of 1943: History & Overview

Instructor: Ashley Miller

Ashley works in Higher Education and holds a Masters degree in Organizational Leadership

Throughout American history, racial riots have been common. In this lesson, we'll talk about the zoot suit riots of 1943 and what made racial tensions so high.

Zoot Suit Riots of 1943: Introduction

Lately, it seems like the news has been filled with people rioting in the streets over racial violence between police and the citizens they serve. In 1943, the situation was much the same, only the racial tensions were between Mexican Americans and U.S. military personnel. At this point in history, Los Angeles, California, was largely populated by Mexican Americans. Young Mexican American men adopted the zoot suit, wool blend suits that had long coats and pants that ballooned out throughout the leg but then tapered at the ankle, as their choice in fashion, which made them easily identifiable in groups and led to what is referred to as the zoot suit riots of 1943.

Zoot suits of the 1940s

Military Personnel Take Issue With Zoot Suits

In the 1940s, twp large events in U.S. history occurred: the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the start of WWII. There was a national ration (or limiting of goods and services to non-military personnel) to make sure our troops had all the supplies they needed to fight the war. Wool was one of those items rationed, which is also what the popular zoot suit was largely made from.

In wartime, there is typically an increase in patriotism. When people were seen wearing zoot suits despite the ban on the material, military servicemen became really, really angry. They felt it was a sign of defiance against the war effort. Since the Mexican Americans adopted this style of dress more so than any other group at the time, it caused servicemen to project their hatred onto every member of that nationality.

The Impact of the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial

In addition, Mexican Americans had distrust in law enforcement officials following the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, which involved a young man, José Gallardo Díaz, who was found dead in California in 1942. Seventeen young Mexican American youth were held without bail on murder charges without any evidence that any were involved. This trial began the Mexican American's distrust of law enforcement officials, which would play a large part in the riots.

The Riots Begin

Remember, servicemen hate Mexican Americans and now Mexican Americans hate law enforcement. Perfect storm right? Two small altercations between Mexican American zoot suit wearers started a flood gate of smaller altercations.

At one point, a convoy of 200 military men in taxi cabs descended on a Mexican American community and began beating anyone they came in contact with. They would strip men of their zoot suits and burn them in the streets. It's reported that police stood by and didn't help to break up the situation.

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