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Black History Month: Watts Rebellion (August 1965)

103rd Street during the riots

February is Black History Month. Throughout this month The Royal Gazette will feature people, events, places and institutions that have contributed to the shaping of African history.

After the Second World War, more than 500,000 African-Americans migrated to West Coast cities in hopes of escaping racism and discrimination. However, they found both in the West.

For many black Los Angeles residents who lived in Watts, their isolation in that community was evidence that racial equality remained a distant goal, as they experienced housing, education, employment and political discrimination.

These racial injustices caused Watts’ African-American population to explode on August 11, 1965 in what would become the Watts Rebellion.

The rebellion began on August 11 when the Los Angeles Highway Patrol stopped black Watts resident Marquette Frye and his brother, alleging that they were speeding. Back-up was called from the Los Angeles Police Department, as a crowd of African-Americans gathered to watch the scene.

Since the incident was close to Frye’s home, his mother emerged to find her son resisting arrest.

Fearful that his arrest may ignite a riot, one LAPD officer drew his firearm. Catching a glimpse of the gun, Mrs Frye jumped on to the officer’s back, causing the crowd to begin cheering.

LAPD officers arrested all three of the Fryes. Enraged by the family’s arrests, Watts’ residents protested as the police cars drove away. Less than an hour later, black Angelenos took to the streets.

The five-day revolt, which involved 30,000 people, served as stark testimony to the inequality and poverty that dominated the lives of thousands of Watts residents. Many of those engaged in the uprising looted items from local groceries and clothing stores, acquiring what they wanted and needed but often could not afford. Others battled the LAPD, whom they held immediately responsible for their poverty and alienation.

By August 15, the riot ended when 14,000 National Guard troops arrived and patrolled the streets.

The next day, most African-Americans retired to their homes. In the end, the Watts Rebellion took 34 lives.

There were 1,032 injuries, nearly 4,000 arrests and $40 million in property damage. In spite of the protest, the Watts Rebellion did not significantly improve the lives of the community’s black population.

While the revolt inspired the federal government to implement programmes to address unemployment, education, healthcare and housing under Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty”, much of the money allocated for these programmes was eventually absorbed by the Vietnam War. Today most of the population of Watts is Latino, with many residents from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Although the population has changed, many of the issues of poverty, alienation and discrimination still plague the community.

Sources: Gerald Horne. Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995); Josh, Sides. LA City Limits: African-American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003; Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots. Violence in the City — an End or a Beginning? (Los Angeles: Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, 1965)