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Watts Riot In 1960

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The Watts Riots



The Watts riots of 1965 represented a dark chapter in the history of the United States. Over a period of four days a large, unruly mob of black residents of South Central Los Angeles, enraged at the alleged treatment of a black motorist by the Caucasian policemen, conducted a campaign of violence, looting, burning and mayhem that eventually required the imposition of military rule to quell.  What is interesting is that these riots happened when they did.  The previous year had seen the landmark Civil Rights Act that represented a major step forwards in the enfranchisement of blacks in America, and was followed by the equally momentous Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet, the rioters at the Watts district of Los Angeles destroyed with reckless abandon. For a while, many believed that the injustices of the past had spilled over resulting in the watershed event that were the Watts Riots, however, a close examination reveals that frustration over racist practices may not have been the cause of the riots. Something else was at play in Watts; something familiar to the 60s, that many today recognize as the freedom to protest uninhibited.


Civil Rights Reforms


In 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a sweeping legislation in the use of public facilities, voting and education, was passed after lobbying efforts by President Lyndon Johnson.[1]  The Act required employers to provide equal employment opportunities and made racial discrimination illegal in public places, including theaters, restaurants and hotels. The Act also offered a “hammer effect” to the civil rights ruling in 1954 that had prohibited segregation in public schools.  Title VI of the Act provided for federal funds being cut off from projects that discriminated on the basis of color, race, religion or national origin.[2]  


The following year in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed which impacted the issue of state disenfranchisement. Voting rights for African Americans had proved to a highly sensitive issue and had often provoked acts of violence and murder such as the killing of voting rights activists in Philadelphia, Mississippi.[3]  Such acts of violence had convinced President Johnson that a strong federal law was needed to address the issue of denial of vote to African Americans in the South.  The new law prohibited “voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in one of the language minority groups.”[4]  It also ended the use of literacy tests as a basis for disenfranchising blacks.[5]


Despite these restrictions, certain states such as California chose to ignore federal law that had advocated improving the civil rights of the African American community.  The state of California had reacted with what was known as Proposition 14[6] which attempted to block the fair housing components of the Civil Rights Act. These actions created a feeling of frustration within blacks in the inner cities. The conventional wisdom is that it was this growing feeling of injustice that spilled over and resulted in the first major violent black riot.



The Riots

 

On Wednesday, August 11, 1965, at around 7 p.m., California Highway Patrol officer Lee Minickus, a white man, pulled over black motorist Marquette Fry in South Central Los Angeles, a predominantly black neighborhood.[7]  Earlier, a black motorist had complained to Minickus that he had seen a car being driven recklessly.  Minickus had given chase and stopped the car, which carried 21-year old Marquette and his 22-year old brother Ronald. [8]  Marquette was administered the standard sobriety test and was found to be drunk.  Minickus told the brothers that Marquette was under arrest and their car would be towed.  Ronald ran home to fetch their mother as their house was only a few blocks away.  A large crowd of blacks from the neighborhood numbering about 300 had assembled at this point. When Mrs. Frye arrived, Marquette started to resist arrest and a scuffle ensued with the highway patrolmen who violently subdued Marquette. Further highway patrolman and Los Angeles police officers arrived to assist and half an hour later the assembled crowd had grown into some 1,000 strong. [9] On observing the arrest of the Fry family, the assembled crowd became hostile towards the police.  A young woman spat on one of the police officers and was arrested for doing so.


The impact of the arrest was exacerbated by rumors that spread to surrounding areas.  Some believed that the woman who was arrested for spitting was pregnant. Rumors also circulated concerning the treatment of the Frye family at the site of the arrest.


The initial mob that assembled continued to grow in number and became increasingly violent later that evening. 

 

“Between 8:15 p.m. and midnight, the mob stoned automobiles, pulled Caucasian motorists out of cars and beat them, and menaced a police field command post which had been set up in the area.  By 1:00 a.m., the outbreak seemed to be under control but, until early morning hours, there were sporadic reports of unruly mobs, vandalism and rock throwing.” [10]


A local firefighter, Ronald Vance, remembers the painstaking violence from the riot of ’65 and explains:

"It was like running a gauntlet. You felt like your life was in your hands, with things flying at you from all directions," he told the Ontario Daily Report on Aug. 15.  "I looked around and there was this Negro striking matches and throwing them into a liquor store on the other side of the street, yelling, "Hey, fireman, here's another fire,' and pretty soon there was."[11]

 

KTLA was the only local news station that was able to cover the rioting acts as they happened.  They were the only stations that had helicopter access, allowing TV viewers to see the actual riot occur from a safe distance. With media coverage from up in the air and interviewing the Watt’s residence on land, KTLA greatened the use of vehicles by attracting more media broadcasters and additional law enforcement teams.[12]


By Thursday morning things appeared somewhat calmer driven in part by the involvement of black leaders, churchmen and other social workers who attempted to persuade the protestors to stand down. [13] The riots not only showed a big divide between white America and African Americans but also showed divides within the black community.  May prominent black leaders who had campaigned for civil rights on the basis of civil disobedience could not understand the violent motivations of the rioters.  Inside a faded, second-story meeting hall, 300 angry blacks quickly ringed Martin Luther King.

 

“‘The people don't feel bad about what happened,’ one soliloquized.  ‘They had nothing to lose.  They don't have jobs, decent homes.  What else could they do?’  ‘Burn, baby, burn,’ someone whooped, to a chorus of laughing applause... King finally got the crowd under control, but he wound up canceling other stops in the riot zone for ‘security reasons.’  Watts, clearly, was a battleground lost.”[14]


The violence flared again on Friday with continued rock throwing and looting.  To control the activity, the police made fender to fender sweeps in police cars to clear up the mobs. [15]  With the first civilian casualty, the fighting, burning and looting intensified and spread into neighboring areas of Southeast Los Angeles.   Fire engines were attacked as they attempted to put out fires in the area. By Saturday morning some 13,900 national guardsman had to be brought in to control the unruly mobs and allow the fire fighters to quell the burning infernos. [16]  A curfew was imposed by the military over an area of 46.5 square miles.  With the imposition of the curfew order was gradually restored over the next few days. 


In total, the riots resulted in some 34 persons dead and over 1,000 wounded.  Around 3,952 persons of all ages were believed to have been arrested and property damage was estimated at around $40 million. [17] 


Post Mortem

The riots were notable because they represented a shift in the form of non-violent protest that had characterized the civil rights generation.[18] They represented the first in a series of violent acts of protest by the black community that would become commonplace in the 60s. But the question arises as to why such riots happened when they did and what caused them.  On the anniversary of the riots, John McWhorter writing for the Washington Post studied the subject and made some interesting observations that raise doubts as to whether the riots were the result of injustices. 


McWhorter points out that the African American community had lived under the most deplorable conditions for 400 years without rioting. Previously riots and violent protests had been undertaken by white bigots typically over rumors of a black man assaulting a white woman such as when whites burned down the upscale black neighborhood in Tulsa in 1921.[19]  Also, the black rioters in Watts attacked and destroyed black shops and establishments with just as much impunity as white ones even though the shops were labeled “soul brother”.  Finally, as McWhorther points out that Los Angeles had been voted the year before by the National Urban League as the best city in America for blacks to live in.  This was a strange paradox, as it appears that the worst riots in the 60s by blacks happened in cities where conditions were the best for blacks to live in.  No riots happened in Birmingham, Alabama or other places in the deep south where social injustices were the most egregious.


McWhorter attributes the rise of such rioting to a new activism or mood that became a hallmark of the 60s:

 

“This factor was a new mood. Only in the 1960s did a significant number of blacks start treating rebellion for its own sake -- rebellion as performance, with no plan of action behind it -- as political activism.”[20]

 


 Today

 

2005 marked the 40th year since the Watts Rioting acts.  To most all affected by this event, is has certainly not been forgotten.  There are still many who classify this as a “rebellion” as opposed to a “riot.”  And these “rebellious” acts were from low unemployment rates, insufficient medical care and condemnable housing conditions.  With a mostly white law enforcement team in a mostly black neighborhood, this caused a lot of revulsion towards the cops. 


A Watts resident for the past 46 years, Alice Harris known as "Sweet Alice" to the Watts community experienced the riot in ’65. She believes there hasn’t been much change since then. "Everybody is tense -- no jobs, zero tolerance in the housing projects... people scared of the police," she says.


Though many businesses failed to return after the riot, a grocery store and hospital were built, but the job rate is still incredibly low and schools are experiencing many levels of difficulty.[21] 


 

Recently the website, http://www.wattsrenaissance.org (1965-2005) was created to connect the citizens within the Watts community together so they can work mutually building and maintaining a stronger community, putting an end to poverty. They deal with issues pertaining to the community’s health, housing, education, justice and environment. 

 

Weekly meetings are held with planning committees that address crucial issues within the Los Angeles area with the belief that “If we join together to address the challenges of Watts, we the people of Watts can develop strategic and sustainable solutions to the challenges we confront every day”.[22]





[1] http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/history/A0858852.html


[2] http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAcivil64.htm


[3] http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/voting/intro/intro_b.htm


[4] http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/voting/sec_2/about_sec2.html


[5] http://www.civilrights.org/research_center/civilrights101/chronology.html


[6] http://www.usc.edu/libraries/archives/la/watts.html


[7] http://www.tcnj.edu/~blohm3/


[8] Bloom, Alexander and Breines, Wini, Takin it to the Streets, New York 2003


[9] Bloom, Alexander and Breines, Wini, Takin it to the Streets, New York 2003


[10] Bloom, Alexander and Breines, Wini, Takin it to the Streets, New York 2003



[12] http://www.answers.com/topic/watts-riots


[13] Bloom, Alexander and Breines, Wini, Takin it to the Streets, New York 2003


[14] http://blogcritics.org/archives/2005/08/18/071347.php


[15] Bloom, Alexander and Breines, Wini, Takin it to the Streets, New York 2003


[16] Bloom, Alexander and Breines, Wini, Takin it to the Streets, New York 2003


[17] Bloom, Alexander and Breines, Wini, Takin it to the Streets, New York 2003

 

[18] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/08/13/AR2005081300103.html


[19] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/08/13/AR2005081300103.html


[20] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/08/13/AR2005081300103.html


[21] http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4795093


[22] http://www.wattsrenaissance.org