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Watts riots

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Collection: 1965 in California, 1965 Riots, 20Th Century in Los Angeles, California, African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954–68), African-American History in Los Angeles, California, African-American Riots in the United States, Arson in California, Civil Rights Movement During the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration, Crime in Los Angeles, California, Crimes in Los Angeles, California, Law Enforcement Operations in the United States, Los Angeles, California Crime History, Riots and Civil Disorder in California, Urban Decay in the United States, Watts, Los Angeles
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Watts riots

Watts riots
Burning buildings during the riots
Date August 11–17, 1965
Location Watts, Los Angeles, California United States
Death(s) 34
Injuries 1,032
Arrested 3,438

The Watts riots (or, collectively, Watts rebellion)[1] took place in the Watts, Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Angeles from August 11 to 17, 1965.

On August 11, 1965, a black motorist was arrested for drunk-driving, and a minor roadside argument suddenly turned into a riot. There followed six days of looting and arson, especially of white-owned businesses, and police needed the support of nearly 4,000 members of the California Army National Guard. There were 34 deaths and over $40 million in property damage. The riots were blamed principally on unemployment, although a later investigation also highlighted police racism. It was the city's worst unrest until the Rodney King riots of 1992.


  • Background 1
    • Residential segregation 1.1
    • Police discrimination 1.2
  • Inciting incident 2
  • The riot begins 3
  • Post-riot commentary 4
  • Cultural references 5
  • See also 6
  • Footnotes 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9


In the Great Migration of the 1920s, major populations of African-Americans moved to Northern and Midwestern cities like Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City to pursue jobs in newly established manufacturing industries and to establish better educational and social opportunities, fleeing racial segregation, Jim Crow Laws, violence, and racial bigotry in the Southern States. This wave of migration largely bypassed Los Angeles. In the 1940s, in the Second Great Migration, black Americans migrated to the West Coast in large numbers, in response to defense industry recruitment at the start of World War II. The black population in Los Angeles leapt from approximately 63,700 in 1940 to about 350,000 in 1965, making the once small black community visible to the general public.[2]

Residential segregation

Los Angeles did not have outright de jure segregation that the South did, but it still had racial restrictive covenants that prevented blacks and Latinos from renting and buying in certain areas, even long after the courts ruled them illegal in 1948. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Los Angeles has been geographically divided by ethnicity. In the 1920s, the city was the location of the first racially restrictive covenants in real estate. By the Second World War, 95 percent of Los Angeles housing was off-limits to African Americans and Asians. Minorities who had served in World War II or worked in L.A.'s defense industries returned to face increasing patterns of discrimination in housing. In addition, they found themselves excluded from the suburbs and restricted to housing in East or South Los Angeles, which includes the Watts neighborhood, and Compton. Such real-estate practices severely restricted educational and economic opportunities available to the minority community.

With an influx of black residents, housing in South Los Angeles became increasingly scarce, overwhelming the already established communities and providing opportunities for real estate developers. Davenport Builders, for example, was a large developer who responded to the demand, with an eye on undeveloped land in Compton. What was originally a mostly white neighborhood in the 1940s increasingly became an African American, middle-class dream in which blue-collar laborers could enjoy suburbia away from the slums. These new housing developments provided better ways of life with more space for families to grow and enjoy healthy living.

For a time in the early 1950s and with its increasing numbers of African Americans, South Los Angeles became the site of significant racial violence. In the area south of Slauson Avenue, whites bombed or fired into houses and set crosses burning on the lawns of homes purchased by black families. In an escalation of behavior that began in the 1920s, white gangs in nearby cities such as South Gate and Huntington Park routinely accosted blacks who traveled through white areas.

The explosive growth of suburbs, most of which barred black people using a variety of methods, provided an opportunity for white people in neighborhoods bordering black districts to leave en masse.

The spread of African Americans throughout the area was achieved in large part through blockbusting, a technique whereby real estate speculators would buy a home on an all-white street, sell or rent it to a black family, and then buy up the remaining homes from Caucasians at cut-rate prices for sale at a hefty profit to housing-hungry black families.

The Rumford Fair Housing Act, designed to remedy residential segregation, was overturned by Proposition 14, which was sponsored by the California real estate industry, and supported by a majority of white voters. Psychiatrist and civil rights activist Alvin Poussaint considered Proposition 14 to be one of the root causes of black rebellion in Watts.[3]

Police discrimination

Not only were the city's black and Latino residents excluded from the high-paying jobs, affordable housing, and politics available to white residents, they also faced discrimination by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). In 1950, William H. Parker was appointed and sworn in as Los Angeles Chief of Police. Parker pushed for more independence from political pressures that would enable him to create a more professionalized police force after a major scandal called Bloody Christmas of 1951. The public supported him and voted for charter changes that isolated the police department from the rest of government. In the 1960s, the LAPD was promoted as one of the best police forces in the world.

Despite its reform and having a professionalized military-like police force, William Parker's LAPD faced heavy criticism from the city's Latino and black residents for police brutality. Chief Parker coined the term "Thin Blue Line."[4]

There are, therefore, some who would argue that racial injustices caused Watts's African-American population to explode on August 11, 1965 in what would become the Watts Rebellion.[5]

Inciting incident

On the evening of Wednesday, August 11, 1965, 21-year-old Marquette Frye, an African American man behind the wheel of his mother's 1955 Buick, was pulled over for reckless driving by white California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer Lee Minikus.[6] After administering a field sobriety test, Minikus placed Frye under arrest and radioed for his vehicle to be impounded.[7] Marquette's brother Ronald, a passenger in the vehicle, walked to their house nearby, bringing their mother, Rena Price, back with him.

When Rena Price reached the intersection of Avalon Boulevard and 116th Street that evening, she scolded Frye about drinking and driving, he recalled in a 1985 interview with the Orlando Sentinel.[8] The situation quickly escalated: Someone shoved Price, Frye was struck, Price jumped an officer, another officer pulled out a shotgun. Backup police officers attempted to arrest Frye by using physical force to subdue him. After rumors spread that the police had roughed Frye up and kicked a pregnant woman, angry mobs formed.[9][10] As the situation intensified, growing crowds of local residents watching the exchange began yelling and throwing objects at the police officers.[11] Frye's mother and brother fought with the officers and they were eventually arrested along with Marquette Frye.[12]

After the arrests of Price and the Frye brothers, the crowd continued to grow. Police came to the scene to break up the crowd several times that night but were attacked by rocks and concrete.[13] A 119-square-kilometer (46-square-mile) swath of Los Angeles would be transformed into a combat zone during the ensuing six days.[14]

The riot begins

Police arrest a man during the riots on August 12
Soldiers of the California's 40th Armored Division direct traffic away from an area of South Central Los Angeles burning during the Watts riot.

After a night of increasing unrest, police and local black community leaders held a community meeting on Thursday, August 12, to discuss an action plan and to urge calm; the meeting failed. Later that day, Los Angeles police chief William H. Parker called for the assistance of the California Army National Guard.[15]

The rioting intensified and on Friday, August 13, about 2,300 National Guardsmen joined the police trying to maintain order on the streets. That number increased to 3,900 by midnight on Saturday, August 14. Sergeant Ben Dunn said "The streets of Watts resembled an all-out war zone in some far-off foreign country, it bore no resemblance to the United States of America." Following the deployment of National Guardsmen a curfew was declared for a vast region of South Central Los Angeles.[16] In addition to the guardsmen, 934 Los Angeles Police officers and 718 officers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department were deployed during the rioting.[15]

Between 31,000 and 35,000 adults participated in the riots over the course of six days, while about 70,000 people were "sympathetic, but not active."[13] Over the six days, there were 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests, and over $40 million in property damage. White Americans were fearful of the breakdown of social order in Watts, especially since white motorists were being pulled over by rioters in nearby areas and assaulted.[6] Many in the black community, however, saw the rioters as taking part in an "uprising against an oppressive system."[13] Black civil rights activist Bayard Rustin in a 1966 essay stated, "The whole point of the outbreak in Watts was that it marked the first major rebellion of Negroes against their own masochism and was carried on with the express purpose of asserting that they would no longer quietly submit to the deprivation of slum life."[17]

Those actively participating in the riots started physical fights with police, blocked firefighters of the Los Angeles Fire Department from their safety duties, or beat white motorists. Arson and looting were largely confined to white-owned stores and businesses that were said to have caused resentment in the neighborhood due to perceived unfairness.[18]

Los Angeles police chief Parker publicly described the people he saw involved in the riots as acting like "monkeys in the zoo."[18] Overall, an estimated $40 million in damage was caused as almost 1,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Homes were not attacked, although some caught fire due to proximity to other fires.

Businesses and private buildings Public buildings Total
Damaged/burned: 258 Damaged/burned: 14 Total: 272
Looted: 192 Total: 192
Both damaged/burned & looted: 288 Total: 288
Destroyed: 267 Destroyed: 1 Total: 268
Total: 977

Post-riot commentary

As this area was known to be under much racial and social tension, debates have surfaced over what really happened in Watts. Reactions and reasoning about the Watts incident greatly vary because those affected by and participating in the chaos that followed the original arrest had varying perspectives. A commission under Governor Pat Brown investigated the riots. The McCone Commission, headed by former CIA director John A. McCone, released a 101-page report on December 2, 1965 entitled Violence in the City—An End or a Beginning?: A Report by the Governor's Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, 1965.[19]

The report identified the root causes of the riots to be high unemployment, poor schools, and other inferior living conditions for African Americans in Watts. Recommendations for addressing these problems included "emergency literacy and preschool programs, improved police-community ties, increased low-income housing, more job-training projects, upgraded health-care services, more efficient public transportation, and many more." Most of these recommendations were not acted upon.[20]

More opinions and explanations appeared as other sources attempted to explain the causes as well. Public opinion polls have shown that around the same percentage of people believed that the riots were linked to Communist groups as those that blame social problems like unemployment and prejudice as the cause.[21] Those opinions concerning racism and discrimination emerged only three years after hearings conducted by a committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights took place in Los Angeles to assess the condition of relations between the police force and minorities. The purpose of these hearings was also to make a ruling on the discrimination case against the police for their alleged mistreatment of members of the Nation of Islam.[21] These different arguments and opinions still prompt debates over the underlying causes of the Watts riots.[18] Martin Luther King Jr. spoke two days after the riots happened in Watts. The riots were also a response to Proposition 14, a constitutional amendment sponsored by the California Real Estate Association that had in effect repealed the Rumford Fair Housing Act.[22] In 1966, the California Supreme Court reinstated the Rumford Fair Housing Act in the Reitman v. Mulkey case (a decision affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court the following year).

Marquette Frye, who smoked and drank heavily, died of pneumonia on December 20, 1986; he was 42.[23] His mother, Rena Price, died on June 10, 2013, at 97.[24] She never recovered the impounded 1955 Buick in which her son had been pulled over for driving while intoxicated on that fateful night of August 11, 1965, because the storage fees exceeded the car's value.[25]

Cultural references

See also


  1. ^ "Watts Rebellion (Los Angeles, 1965)". King Encyclopedia. Stanford University. Retrieved November 23, 2011. 
  2. ^ The Great Migration: Creating a New Black Identity in Los Angeles.
  3. ^ Jeanne Theoharis, "'Alabama on Avalon': Rethinking the Watts Uprising and the Character of Black Protest in Los Angeles," in The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era, ed. Peniel Joseph (New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 47-49
  4. ^ Shaw, David (25 May 2014). "Chief Parker Molded LAPD Image--Then Came the '60s : Police: Press treated officers as heroes until social upheaval prompted skepticism and confrontation.". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 21 September 2014. 
  5. ^ Watts Rebellion (August 1965) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed. The Black Past (August 11, 1965).
  6. ^ a b
  7. ^
  8. ^ Szymanski, Michael (August 5, 1990). "How Legacy of the Watts Riot Consumed, Ruined Man's Life". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved 22 June 2013. 
  9. ^ Dawsey, Darrell (August 19, 1990). "To CHP Officer Who Sparked Riots, It Was Just Another Arrest". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 23, 2011. 
  10. ^ Woo, Elaine (June 22, 2013). "Rena Price dies at 97; her and son's arrests sparked Watts riots". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 22 June 2013. 
  11. ^ Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  12. ^ Walker, Yvette (2008). Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century. Oxford University Press. 
  13. ^ a b c Barnhill, John H. (2011). "Watts Riots (1965)". In Danver, Steven L. Revolts, Protests, Demonstrations, and Rebellions in American History, Volume 3. ABC-CLIO. 
  14. ^ Woo, Elaine (June 22, 2013). "Rena Price dies at 97; her and son's arrests sparked Watts riots". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 22 June 2013. 
  15. ^ a b "Violence in the City: An End or a Beginning?". Retrieved January 3, 2012. 
  16. ^ "A Report Concerning the California National Guard's Part in Suppressing the Los Angeles Riot, August 1965" (PDF). 
  17. ^ Rustin, Bayard (March 1966). "The Watts". Commentary Magazine. Retrieved January 3, 2012. 
  18. ^ a b c Oberschall, Anthony (1968). "The Los Angeles Riot of August 1965". Social Problems 15 (3): 322–341.  
  19. ^ Violence in the City—An End or a Beginning?: A Report by the Governor's Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, 1965. University of Southern California. Retrieved August 21, 2014.
  20. ^ Dawsey, Darrell (July 8, 1990). "25 Years After the Watts Riots : McCone Commission's Recommendations Have Gone Unheeded". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 22, 2011. 
  21. ^ a b Jeffries,Vincent & Ransford, H. Edward. "Interracial Social Contact and Middle-Class White Reaction to the Watts Riot". Social Problems 16.3 (1969): 312–324.
  22. ^ Tracy Domingo, Miracle at Malibu Materialized, Graphic, November 14, 2002
  23. ^ "Marquette Frye Dead;'Man Who Began Riot". New York Times. December 25, 1986. Retrieved 23 June 2013. 
  24. ^ "Rena Price, woman whose arrest sparked Watts riots, dies at 97". 
  25. ^ Woo, Elaine (June 22, 2013). "Rena Price dies at 97; her and son's arrests sparked Watts riots". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 22 June 2013. 
  26. ^ Abramovich, Alex (July 20, 2001). "The Apes of Wrath – By Alex Abramovich – Slate Magazine". Retrieved 2011-08-30. 

Further reading

  • Cohen, Jerry and William S. Murphy, Burn, Baby, Burn! The Los Angeles Race Riot, August 1965, New York: Dutton, 1966.
  • Conot, Robert, Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness, New York: Bantam, 1967.
  • Guy Debord, Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy, 1965. A situationist interpretation of the riots
  • Horne, Gerald, Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995.
  • Thomas Pynchon, "A Journey into the Mind of Watts", 1966. full text
  • David O' Sears, The politics of violence: The new urban Blacks and the Watts riot
  • Clayton D. Clingan, Watts Riots
  • Paul Bullock, Watts: The Aftermath. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1969.
  • Johny Otis, Listen to the Lambs. New York: W.W. Norton and Co. 1968.

External links

  • Watts – The Standard Bearer – Watts and the riots of the 1960s.
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