Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties

“A richly detailed portrait of a city that seethed with rebellious energy.” – Kirkus Reviews

A “huge and exhilarating work of history” – one of the “Most Anticipated Books of 2020” – LitHub

A magisterial, kaleidoscopic, riveting history of Los Angeles in the Sixties

Histories of the sixties in the United States invariably overlook Southern California, but Los Angeles was the epicenter of that decade’s political and social earthquake. L.A. was a launchpad for Black Power—where Malcolm X and Angela Davis first came to prominence and the Watts uprising shook the nation. The city was home to the Chicano Blowouts and Chicano Moratorium, as well as being the birthplace of “Asian American” as a political identity, a locus of the antiwar movement, gay liberation movement, and women’s movement, and, of course, the capital of California counterculture. Mike Davis and Jon Wiener provide the first comprehensive movement history of L.A. in the sixties, drawing on extensive archival research and dozens of interviews with principal figures, as well as the authors’ storied personal histories as activists. Following on from Davis’s award-winning L.A. history, City of Quartz, Set the Night on Fire is a historical tour de force, delivered in scintillating and fiercely beautiful prose.

Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz, Late Victorian Holocausts, Buda’s Wagon, and Planet of Slums. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award. He lives in San Diego.

Jon Wiener is a longtime Contributing Editor at the Nation and host and producer of Start Making Sense, the magazine’s weekly podcast. He is an Emeritus Professor of U.S. history at UC Irvine, and his books include Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files and How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey across America. He lives in Los Angeles.

“A richly detailed portrait of a city that seethed with rebellious energy.” – Kirkus Reviews
“A vivid portrait of Los Angeles during a turbulent decade.  Davis and Wiener experienced firsthand the political, cultural, and social upheavals that roiled LA in the 1960s. Davis was the Los Angeles regional organizer for Students for a Democratic Society and a member of the Southern California branch of the Communist Party. Wiener, who had participated in anti-war and civil rights activism from the time he was in high school, arrived in LA in 1969, quickly becoming a reporter for Liberation News Service, which provided to underground and college papers around the country reports about strikes, anti-war protests, and incendiary events such as the efforts of the California regents to fire philosophy professor Angela Davis. In addition to their own recollections, the authors mine abundant archival sources and interviews to create a richly detailed portrait of a city that seethed with rebellious energy. “Much of that energy came from civil rights activists, with LA serving as “a major laboratory for the Black Power experiment.” Building on “the template of Black nationalism,” Mexican Americans redefined themselves as Chicanas/os, fashioning their own ideology and identity, as did Asian Americans, who lobbied for ethnic studies programs and, at UCLA, published a monthly newspaper that publicized the Asian American movement. Feminist groups—liberal, radical, and socialist—burgeoned, as well. Because the Los Angeles Times “was firmly and loudly right-wing,” the LA Free Press emerged as the nation’s first and most influential underground paper, disseminating news about racial unrest (such as the Watts uprising of 1965), gay rights (such as the founding, in 1966, of a group calling itself Personal Rights in Defense and Education, or PRIDE), and the repressive actions of the police department, mayor, and the state’s governor, Ronald Reagan. A spirited history of urban unrest that laid the groundwork and inspiration for future activists and reformers.”

A “huge and exhilarating work of history” – one of LitHub’s “Most Anticipated Books of 2020”
“This huge and exhilarating work of history aims to restore some depth and accuracy to how we talk about Los Angeles in the 1960s, the decade during which “Surfin’ USA” conjured utopian dreams of a beach color, and the 1965 Watts uprising suggested there was some trouble with that dream. As Davis and Wiener show, the reality was far more complex than that pendulum swing, and Los Angeles was very different than other parts of the state in building a culture of resistance. In addition to more than 100 urban protests and near riots that surrounded Watts, resistance was being led by middle and high school students, tens of thousands of whom walked out in the mid to late 1960s. The ACLU did not follow in LA, and the authors pay tribute to their role guiding civil rights pushes. LA had the first LBGTQ street protest, it wasn’t New York, and they were fighting an entrenched white nationalism on the streets of LA too. It wasn’t just the police, but white gangs who made it hard for kids of color to surf on many beaches. Weaving between electoral politics and protest movements, from city hall to Sacramento, Davis and Wiener have created an important book to read in a time where LA needs more than ever to be mobilized. –John Freeman, Lit Hub Executive Editor January 14, 2020

“There’s a monochromatic picture of Los Angeles in the sixties—all Hollywood pop and Didion ennui—that up close turns out to be made of many different colors and a lot more stories. What more than a million people of African, Asian, and Mexican ancestry–“edited out of utopia”–as Mike Davis and Jon Wiener put it, alongside antiwar feminists and high school students and others did is the heart of this book, and it’s a big heart. No one could gather and tell these intersecting stories better than Davis and Wiener, and their book gives us back a great city’s greatness in its heroes, movements, edges and other centers, so many of them forgotten.”
—Rebecca Solnit, author of Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir

“From the Ash Grove to Aztlán, from the Valley to Vietnam, it’s all here. Step inside and meet an amazing array of characters who risked life and limb to drag the City of Angels out of the dark ages. In showing how struggles for free health care, adequate housing, functional schools, racial and sexual liberation, new forms of creative expression, and the human right of freedom from brutal police violence came together into a mighty torrent, Wiener and Davis have written a revolutionary history for an age of continuing contradictions.”
—Daniel Widener, author of Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles

“Davis’s and Wiener’s L.A. is not the glossy theme park of mansions, beaches, and glitzed-up noir, but the undercity of outsiders struggling to get out from under the savage police to stake out a place in the sun. Their book is a rare and necessary saga of unsung heroes, vicious authorities, and unpunished crimes–a timely reminder of opportunities seized and opportunities wasted.”
—Todd Gitlin, author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage

”This is history from below, in the very best sense, focusing on grassroots heroes and struggles. A magnificent mural of the local Sixties, written with verve and passion by two of my favorite locals.”
— Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer

“The great task of Set the Night on Fire is to remedy the erasures of the black, brown and queer activists who put their bodies on the line. Mike Davis and Jon Wiener remind us that what there is of progressivism in the city today (we can debate how much) has a very deep history of struggle against unforgiving reactionary forces. Revolutionary artist-nuns, educator-organizers and free-jazz visionaries are just a few of a vast cast of characters that together paint a stirring portrait of a visionary Los Angeles ever-emerging from the shadows of the old order. It’s high time radical LA came out of the closet. This book blows the door wide open. Viva Los Angeles Libre!”
—Rubén Martínez, author of Desert America: A Journey Across Our Most Divided Landscape

Coming Soon