Watts Rebellion begins

In the predominantly Black Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, racial tension reaches a breaking point after two white policemen scuffle with a Black motorist suspected of drunken driving. A crowd of spectators gathered near the corner of Avalon Boulevard and 116th Street to watch the arrest and soon grew angry by what they believed to be yet another incident of racially motivated abuse by the police.

An uprising soon began, spurred on by residents of Watts who were embittered after years of economic and political isolation. The rioters eventually ranged over a 50-square-mile area of South Central Los Angeles, looting stores and torching buildings as snipers fired at police and firefighters. Finally, with the assistance of thousands of National Guardsmen, the violence was quelled on August 16.

The five days of violence left 34 dead, 1,032 injured, nearly 4,000 arrested and $40 million worth of property destroyed. The Watts Rebellion, also know as the Watts Riots or the Watts Uprising, foreshadowed many rebellions to occur in ensuing years, including the 1967 Detroit Riots and Newark Riots.

1967 Detroit riot

The 1967 Detroit Riot, also known as the Detroit Rebellion and the 12th Street Riot, was the bloodiest incident in the "Long, hot summer of 1967". [2] Composed mainly of confrontations between black residents and the Detroit Police Department, it began in the early morning hours of Sunday July 23, 1967, in Detroit, Michigan.

82nd Airborne Division
101st Airborne Division
Michigan Army National Guard
Michigan State Police
Detroit Police Department

The precipitating event was a police raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar then known as a blind pig, on the city's Near West Side. It exploded into one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in American history, lasting five days and surpassing the scale of Detroit's 1943 race riot 24 years earlier.

Governor George W. Romney ordered the Michigan Army National Guard into Detroit to help end the disturbance. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the United States Army's 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions. The result was 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 400 buildings destroyed.

The scale of the riot was the worst in the United States since the 1863 New York City draft riots during the American Civil War, and was not surpassed until the 1992 Los Angeles riots 25 years later.

The riot was prominently featured in the news media, with live television coverage, extensive newspaper reporting, and extensive stories in Time and Life magazines. The staff of the Detroit Free Press won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for general local reporting for its coverage.

Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot wrote and recorded "Black Day in July" recounting these events on his 1968 album Did She Mention My Name?. This song was subsequently banned by radio stations in 30 American states. "Black Day in July" was later covered by The Tragically Hip on the 2003 anthology Beautiful: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot.

The Fire Last Time: LIFE in Watts, 1966

The August 1965 Watts Riots (or Watts Rebellion, depending on one’s perspective and politics), were among the bloodiest, costliest and most analyzed uprisings of the notoriously unsettled mid-1960s. Ostensibly sparked by an aggressive traffic stop of a black motorist by white cops, the six-day upheaval resulted in 34 deaths, more than 3,400 arrests and tens of millions of dollars in property damage (back when a million bucks still meant something).

A year after the flames were put out and the smoke cleared from the southern California sky, LIFE revisited the scene of the devastation for a “special section” in its July 15, 1966, issue that the magazine called “Watts: Still Seething.” A good part of that special section featured a series of color photos made by Bill Ray on the streets of Watts: pictures of stylish, even dapper, young men making and hurling Molotov cocktails of children at play in torched streets and rubble-strewn lots of wary police and warier residents of a community struggling to save itself from drugs, gangs, guns, idleness and an enduring, corrosive despair.

In that July 1966 issue, LIFE introduced Ray’s photographs, and Watts itself, in a tone that left no doubt that, whatever else might have happened in the months since the streets were on fire, the future of the district was hardly certain, and the rage that fueled the conflagration had hardly abated:

Before last August the rest of Los Angeles had never heard of Watts. Today, a rock thrown through a Los Angeles store window brings the fearful question: “Is this the start of the next one?” It brings the three armed camps in Los Angeles the police, white civilians, the Negroes face to face for a tense flickering moment. . . .
Whites still rush to gun stores each time a new incident hits the papers. A Beverly Hills sporting goods shop has been sold out of 9mm automatics for months, and the waiting list for pistols runs several pages.
Last week a Negro showed a reporter a .45 caliber submachine gun. “There were 99 more in this shipment,” he said, “and they’re spread around to 99 guys with cars.”
“We know it don’t do no good to burn Watts again,” a young Negro says. “Maybe next time we go up to Beverly Hills.”
Watts seethes with resentments. There is anger toward the paternalism of many job programs and the neglect of Watts needs. There is no public hospital within eight miles and last month Los Angeles voters rejected a proposed $12.3 million bond issue to construct one. When a 6-month-old baby died not long ago because of inadequate medical facilities, the mother’s grief was echoed by a crowd’s outrage. “If it was your baby,” said a Negro confronting a white, “you’d have an ambulance in five minutes.”
Unemployment and public assistance figures invite disbelief in prosperous California. In Watts 24% of the residents were on some form of relief a year ago and that percentage still stands. In Los Angeles the figure is 5%.
[It] takes longer to build a society than to burn one, and fear will be a companion along the way to improvements. “I had started to say it is a beautiful day,” Police Inspector John Powers said, looking out a window, “but beautiful days bring people out and that makes me wish we had rain and winter year-round.”

For his part, Bill Ray, a staff photographer for LIFE from the mid-1960s until the magazine’s demise in the early 1970s, recalled the Watts assignment clearly, and fondly:

“In the mid-nineteen-sixties [Ray told], I shot two major assignments for LIFE in southern California, one after the other, that involved working with young men who were volatile and dangerous. One group was the Hells Angels of San Bernardino the early, hard-core San Berdoo chapter of the gang and the other were the young men who had taken part in the Watts riots the year before.
I did not try to dress like them, act like them or pretend to be tough. I showed great interest in them, and treated them with respect. The main thing was to convince them that I had no connection with the police. The thing that surprised me the most was that, in both cases, as I spent more time with them and got to know them better, I got to like and respect many of them quite a lot. There was a humanity there that we all have inside us. Meeting and photographing different kinds of people has always been the most exciting part of my job. I still love it.
Two big differences in the assignments, though, was that I shot the Hells Angels in black and white which was perfect for their gritty world and “Watts: A Year Later” was in color. Also perfect, because Watts had a lot of color, on the walls, the graffiti, the way people dressed and, of course, my group of bombers who liked to practice making and throwing Molotov cocktails [see slides 17, 18 and 19 in gallery].
Those two assignments documented two utterly marginalized worlds that few people ever get to see up close. There was no job on earth as good as being a LIFE photographer.”

The words painted on the grocery store alerted rioters that the stored was African-American owned.

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Watts, Los Angeles, 1966.

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Young men hung out near Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, 1966.

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Watts, Los Angeles, 1966.

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Young men near Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, 1966.

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Watts, Los Angeles, 1966.

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

William Solomon (right, in his home in Watts) commanded a big Watts street gang, which he openly admitted took an active part in the riot. A champion hurdler in high school, he had no job and was on probation for assault. With two followers shown with him, he later helped at a neighborhood association and used his influence to keep order there and, by his interest, give its program a certain prestige in the streets.”

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Watts, Los Angeles, 1966.

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

The Fire Last Time: Life in Watts, 1966

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Watts, Los Angeles, 1966.

Bill Ray/ Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Watts, Los Angeles, 1966.

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Watts, Los Angeles, 1966.

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Watts, Los Angeles, 1966.

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Watts, Los Angeles, 1966.

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Booker Griffin (yellow shirt) moved in on an argument between students and police who found the youths carrying heavy boards and suspected a gang fight. He calmed both sides.

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Making Molotov cocktails, Watts, 1966.

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Molotov cocktails in Watts, 1966.

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Molotov cocktails in Watts, 1966.

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Molotov cocktails in Watts, 1966.

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

LaRoi Drew Ali refused to join any group, but viewed Christianity as a device to keep African-Americans down. “Even if somebody did rise up on Easter,” he said, “it would just be another white man to kick us.”

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Watts, Los Angeles, 1966.

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Watts, Los Angeles, 1966.

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

The Fire Last Time: Life in Watts, 1966

Bill Ray/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

10 ways to explore the complicated legacy of Watts through literature

A shoe store collapsed in flames during the 1965 Watts riots. Also called an uprising, the events there echoed across Los Angeles, America and in our literature.

The Watts riots, which began 50 years ago, on Aug. 11, 1965, were sparked by a traffic stop. This they share in common with the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Unlike that later disturbance, however, Watts provoked a literary foment as the city struggled — and in many ways continues to struggle — with the uprising and what it meant.

This is not surprising Watts has a deep literary and cultural history. It goes back at least as far as 1931, when Arna Bontemps published his novel “God Sends Sunday.”

Recalling his upbringing in the first decade of the 20th century, he describes a community in which “the streets … were three or four dusty wagon paths. In the moist grass along the edges cows were staked. Broken carts and useless wagons littered the front yards of the people, carts with turkeys and game chickens and guinea fowl roosting on the spokes of the wheels and wagons from the beds of which small dark mules were eating straw.”

And yet, despite its complicated legacy, as USC professor Victor Jones observes in “(IN)formal L.A.: The Space of Politics,” “many Angelenos never venture to this 2.5-square-mile section of southeast Los Angeles, For most, Watts resides in the collective psyche as euphemism, a one-word cautionary tale of persistent culture, social, and economic tension.”

Here, then, a look at the literary heritage of Watts and what it has to tell us about the city in which we live.

1. The Watts Writers Workshop. In September 1965, a month after the conflagration, novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg founded the Watts Writers Workshop, securing the support of the National Endowment for the Arts. The Workshop was an early analog to contemporary institutions such as 826 LA, offering not only writing classes and public programming but also after school programs for students in the community. At its peak, it mentored, or featured, writers including J. Eric Priestley, Quincy Troupe, Kamau Daaood and the Watts Prophets, a performance poetry group that included Richard Dedeaux, Amd Hamilton and Otis O’Solomon. The original Workshop building was burned to the ground in 1973.

2. The Watts Prophets. Growing out of the Watts Writers Project — where its three members met and began to collaborate — the Watts Prophets innovated a jazzy spoken word poetry with an activist sensibility and deep roots in the community. They released albums in 1969 and 1971. The group used performance as a form of confrontation Dedeaux, who died in 2013, once challenged Muhammad Ali to a poetry duel. “Richard said, ‘Hey man, you are the greatest fighter in the world, I’ll give you that,’” Hamilton recalled in a Times obituary. “‘But you keep saying you are the greatest poet, and that’s not right. We’re the greatest poets,’” The upshot? “With a crowd watching in a hotel lobby, they faced off — Ali did a poem, and the Watts Prophets answered with a medley of poems, punctuated by their improvisational word riffs that music historians now consider a forerunner of hip-hop.”

3. “The Riot Inside Me: A Statistic Speaks” by Wanda Coleman. This essay, which gave title to the author’s 2005 collection, begins as a reflection on the 1992 riots but moves quickly to encompass Coleman’s history, her experience growing up in Watts in the late 1940s and 1950s, and her sense of what the Watts riots meant. “Black had become beautiful,” she writes of the immediate aftermath, referring to the influx of money and community involvement represented by the Watts Writers Workshop among other groups. “From the ashes in Watts sprang a series of arts and educational organization that opened their doors to encourage Black writers and artists.” But, as Coleman recognized even in the moment, it did not, could not last. “The Civil Rights movement was declared over by 1969,” she continues. “Except for programs at the Watts Towers and Inner City Cultural Center, similar programs in Watts … would vanish by 1975.”

4. “A Journey Into the Mind of Watts” by Thomas Pynchon. This essay, originally published in the New York Times Magazine in 1966, offers a stunning slice of life of a community a year after the unrest, a place where debris is a defining feature of the landscape, “both the real and the emotional one: busted glass, busted crockery, nails, tin cans, all kinds of scrap and waste.” It’s a stunning contrast to the falsely rosy view of Watts that Reyner Banham presents in his 1972 documentary “Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles.” “In the business part of town,” Pynchon writes, as if seeing the future, “… [p]ool halls and bars, warm and dark inside, are crowded many domino, dice and whist games in progress. Outside, men stand around a beer cooler listening to a ball game on the radio others lean or hunker against the sides of buildings — low, faded stucco boxes that remind you oddly, of certain streets in Mexico. Women go by, to and from what shopping there is. It is easy to see how crowds, after all, can form quickly in these streets, around the least seed of a disturbance or accident. For the moment, it all only waits in the sun.”

5. “Los Angeles Notebook” by Joan Didion. Unlike Pynchon, Joan Didion did not visit the community to write about Watts rather, she sought to understand it through a wider lens, that of the city at large and its promise of apocalypse. In this 1967 essay, published in her collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” she assesses the riots by invoking the iconography of the fires, the image of Los Angeles turning inward to devour itself. “The city burning,” Didion writes, “is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself: Nathanael West perceived that, in ‘The Day of the Locust’ and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end.”

6. “The New Centurions” by Joseph Wambaugh (1970). When he’d been employed by the LAPD for eight years, Wambaugh began work on this, his first novel. Two years later, as a courtesy, he submitted it for review before its publication — and wound up attracting the department’s ire. The novel, which is fiction, cut a little too close to home: It tracks the lives of three police officers who join the department in 1960 and ends five years later with their involvement in the Watts riots.

7. “The Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s” by Gerald Horne (1995). Horne, who was then a professor at UC Santa Barbara, wrote the first comprehensive treatment of the 1965 uprising. His work is based on hundreds of oral histories — including residents of Watts and the rest of Los Angeles, then-Gov. Pat Brown, not-yet L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, Martin Luther King Jr., Black Panthers, members of the Nation of Islam, and eventual governor and president Ronald Reagan — that he began gathering before the 1992 conflagration that echoed the events of 1965.

8. “Little Scarlet” by Walter Mosley. Mosley’s 2004 mystery takes place in the immediate aftermath of the disturbance, as his detective hero Easy Rawlins is asked to investigate the murder of an African-American woman named Nola Payne — who may have been killed by a white man at the height of the violence. That’s a terrific set-up, and it allows Mosley to immerse himself in the riots as a watershed event in the history of contemporary Los Angeles — especially the city’s tortured racial legacy. “Fear on one side,” he writes, in the voice of his protagonist, “defeat on the other — I wondered if there would ever be a day where I could see my life as a part of something that didn’t want to reject me or beat me senseless.”

9. “Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities” edited by Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramon (2010). “The book brings together the research interests of what Hunt describes as an ‘all-star team’ of contributors, most but not all of them academics with strong California connections. Comprising 17 short to medium-length essays, it pivots from data-rich analyses of how the black community’s 20th century demographic center gradually has shifted from Central Avenue to Leimert Park, to interview-driven, anecdotal accounts,” Reed Johnson wrote in our pages. The political, cultural and artistic history of Watts runs through these and other “multidisciplinary, L.A.-centric essays on incarceration’s impact on black families, the relationships between gay African Americans and their religious communities, and the ethnic-minority admissions policies of UCLA, among other thorny topics.”

10. “The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America” by James T. Patterson (2012). Patterson, now an emeritus professor at Brown University, observes that “the rage that gripped many of the residents” of Watts “stemmed not only from poverty, overcrowding and racial discrimination but also from the higher expectations that the civil rights movement had helped to excite by 1965.” He sees the events in Watts, alongside the escalation in Vietnam, as the most important of “1965 — the year of military escalation, of Watts, of the splintering of the civil rights movement, and of mounting cultural change and polarization — as the time when America’s social cohesion began to unravel and when the turbulent phenomenon that would be called ‘the Sixties’ broke into view.”

Revisiting the 1965 Watts Rebellion: A Journey Through Photographs

It started on a hot August day with a traffic stop, and quickly erupted into six days of civil unrest that devastated the community of Watts and awakened the nation. To commemorate the date that had such a tremendous impact on the city of Los Angeles, California State University, Dominguez Hills is hosting an exhibit of photos and memorabilia, as well as a series of talks and screenings, that illuminate what circumstances led to the Watts Rebellion of 1965, what positive changes occurred as a result of it, and what lingering inequities remain in the largely African American and now Latino communities of southeast and central Los Angeles.

Fifty years ago this week, Watts exploded with violence. The scenario sounds uncomfortably familiar in today's environment of racially fueled police abuse and racial tension. What sparked the uprising in 1965 was a physical altercation while a white policeman was placing African American motorist, Marquette Frye under arrest for drunk driving. The exact details change depending on who is telling the story: it started when the arresting officer verbally assaulted Marquette's mother, or when he punched a pregnant woman. But no matter the exact incident that ignited the uprising, the issues that lead to it were long seething, and built on a foundation of systemic inequities.

The root causes ran much deeper in 1965's Watts community. "The economic deprivation, social isolation, inadequate housing, and general despair of thousands of Negroes teeming in Northern and Western ghettos are the ready seeds which give birth to tragic expressions of violence," assessed Martin Luther King when he visited Watts just days after the rebellion. The unrest was fueled by the ongoing local issue of housing discrimination, most clearly exhibited by the passing of Proposition 14, which nullified the Rumford Fair Housing Act and allowed property owners and landlords to refuse to rent or sell their properties to people of color. With huge divisions in society based on skin color, and the ballooning of poverty and discrimination, L.A. was rife for conflict.

This photo essay is the first of three installments that takes a reflective look at the 1965 Watts Rebellion as well as the activism and re-energized community that followed the uprising to current day.

Photographs courtesy of Laura Vena and California State University Dominguez Hills Archives, "Watts Then and Now".

A Timeline of US Race Riots Since 1965

WASHINGTON - The rioting in the U.S. city of Minneapolis after the death of a black man in police custody is just the latest incident of racially charged mayhem to mark the United States since the 1960s.

1965: Los Angeles

An identity check by police on two black men in a car sparks the Watts riots, August 11-17, 1965, in Los Angeles, which leave 34 dead and tens of millions of dollars' worth of damage.

The trouble starts when Marquette Frye and his half brother are stopped by police and taken in for questioning. Several thousand blacks surround the police station and, after a week of arson and looting, the Watts neighborhood is all but destroyed.

1967: Newark

Two white police officers arrest and beat up a black taxi driver for a minor traffic violation, setting off rioting July 12-17 in Newark, New Jersey. For five days, in stifling summer heat, rioters wreck the district, leaving 26 dead and 1,500 injured.

1967: Detroit

Race riots in Detroit, Michigan, July 23-27, 1967, kill 43 and leave more than 2,000 injured. Trouble spreads to Illinois, North Carolina, Tennessee and Maryland.

1968: King assassination

After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, violence erupts in 125 cities April 4-11, 1968, leaving at least 46 dead and 2,600 injured. In Washington, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson sends in the 82nd Airborne Division to quell riots.

The acquittal of four white police officers in Tampa, Florida, on charges of beating a black motorcyclist to death in December 1979 after he rode through a red light sets off a wave of violence in Miami's Liberty City, May 17-20, 1980, leaving 18 dead and more than 300 injured.

1992: Los Angeles

From April 30 to May 1, 1992, riots erupt in Los Angeles, with a toll of at least 59 dead and more than 2,300 injured. The violence was set off by the acquittal of four white police officers who were filmed beating up a black motorist, Rodney King. Violence also breaks out in Atlanta, California, Las Vegas, New York, San Francisco and San Jose.

2001: Cincinnati

On April 9, 2001, rioting erupts in Cincinnati, Ohio, after the killing of a 19-year-old black man, Timothy Thomas, by a white police officer.

Mayor Charlie Luken lifts a four-night curfew on the city on April 16, after the city's worst rioting in more than 30 years, during which 70 people are injured.

2014: Ferguson

Ten days of protests and riots and heavy-handed police tactics in Ferguson, Missouri, take place August 9-19, 2014, after a white officer kills an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. In late November, the announcement that charges are being dropped against the police officer leads to a new explosion of anger.

2015: Baltimore

On April 19, 2015, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, dies a week after suffering serious spinal injuries in a police van after being arrested by Baltimore officers.

The arrest is captured on video and broadcast, leading to rioting and looting in Baltimore, a city of 620,000 inhabitants, of which nearly two-thirds are black. A state of emergency is declared and the authorities call in troops.

2016: Charlotte

In September 2016, in Charlotte, North Carolina, sometimes violent protests break out over the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, 43.

Police say the shooting happened when they saw him hold up a gun as they approached his vehicle after seeing him rolling a marijuana cigarette. His family says he was unarmed.

Every Ten Feet was a Soldier: Jazz and the Watts Rebellion

On the first night of the Watts uprising, 13-year-old Leon Chancler, then a student at Locke High School's jazz workshop, was walking home along Avalon Boulevard when he heard the first sirens. "I lived on 99th and Avalon. We were coming back from a field trip in San Diego," remembers the prolific drummer and studio musician, who famously played on Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," and now goes by the name Ndugu. "I had just left the school and I was around 108th when three police cars sped by. I thought, Oh man, something's definitely going on down there." Today, the 63-year-old Chancler teaches music at USC but the memory remains vivid. "Once the incident hit the news, everything went haywire. All we could do the next day is sit home and watch it on TV." 1

Nine blocks south at the corner of 116th and Avalon, 15-year-old Ernest Roberts, a clarinet student at Jordan High School, stood wide-eyed at a blooming scene of street theater. The accelerating drift of locals off their front porches, drawn towards the '55 Chevy and CHP officers directing the 21-year-old driver unsteadily walking a sobriety line. Someone spit at the cops in the confusion, they waded into the crowd after a woman who was a friend of Robert's family. "She was hairdresser and had a smock on but the smock looked like she was pregnant. Turned out she wasn't." Roberts, now a jazz multi-instrumentalist living and working in Berlin, recalled to historian Steven Isoardi in 2001. "The policeman grabbed her by the hair and threw her down on the ground, and everybody goes, 'Whoooaa.'" 2

Eight miles to the west at the glassed-in penthouse lounge in the International Hotel, drummer Carl Burnett, who had played with the likes of Sarah Vaughn and Horace Silver, was taking intermission with his own Latin-jazz quintet when someone pointed east: "Hey man, there's a fire down in Watts." There were few other high-rise buildings around the brand new hotel and the view afforded an untrammeled vantage point from South L.A. to Pasadena. Fifteen minutes later, as the band took the stage for their last set, someone noted, "Hey Carl, the fire looks like it's all the way down to Slauson." 3 As they played, heads in the audience and among the wait staff kept turning toward the eerie glow as it spread north. By the time they finished their set at 1:30 a.m., nearly 1,500 people were rampaging through the streets of Watts. Most of the quintet, including Burnett, lived there.

Around daybreak, Hampton Hawes was speeding south along the Harbor Freeway, on his way from an after-hours jam session after headlining a gig at Mitchell's Studio Club in Hollywood. When he saw the smoke, Hawes assumed it was a late-summer fog bank. When he saw the fire, he assumed two jet planes had collided and crashed in his neighborhood. "Whole blocks were crackling with flames," the post-bop pianist remembered in his 1972 autobiography "Raise Up Off Me." "Old people, little people fat people, kids -- looked like they'd just come swarming out of the ground, cars crashing up to corners, picking up cats and shooting off again [and] the police with their guns standings around at a kind if lazy, bewildered parade rest." After a "nervous fireman" mistakenly directed him the wrong way down a one-way street, Hawes made it safely home, telling his wife Jackie: "Watts just declared war on the city of Los Angeles, and as many motherfuckers as I saw out there tonight, they may win.'" 4

Particularly for jazz musicians, it must have been a brutal severing of historical memory for them to witness. The decayed and burning neighborhood and blurred young faces of pent-up fury revealed to the rest of the world on live TV screens bore no resemblance to the cultural and racial landscape their parents and grandparents had built. They had experienced Watts' slow, decades-long progression from multi-ethnic cowpatch called "Mudtown" to a thriving business and entertainment hub that one of its own sons, bassist Charles Mingus, dubbed "The Big Town." 5 Besides Mingus, Watts had produced four generations of jazz talent: Don Cherry, Buddy Collette, Cecil "Big Jay" McNeely, The Woodman Brothers, William "Boogie" Daniels, Dexter Gordon, Eric Dolphy, Billy Higgins among them. By the 1960s, however, even a successful studio musician like Collette, who grew up in an area called Central Gardens, had moved to the suburban environs of Compton. "It seemed that the Watts area was going downhill and people were frustrated in many ways," Collette wrote in 2001. "No work, and nothing was happening. There was no future." 6

Even the younger players who came of age in the time of Watts' long, excruciating decline benefited the city's ingrained sense of community arts. "We had a great musical neighborhood [and] a really wide range of young musicians," recalled Ernie Roberts, who would adopt the name Fuasi Abdul-Khaliq. "Everybody it seemed to me on every block was playing an instrument." 7 To the growing legions of local gangs, musicians were a protected and precious cargo. "It wasn't like the Crips and the Bloods," remembers Chancler. "You had gangs like the Slausons and the Executives but they weren't hell-raisers. If you were in a band you were exempt, because you were cool." 8 Even the rioters of 1965 respected their musical elders. Johnny Otis, an R&B bandleader and radio personality who had owned the Barrelhouse club in Watts in the late 1940s, was driving his MGA near Will Rogers State Park when three men converged on his car. One of them recognized its driver: "Johnny Otis, are you out of your goddamn mind? Get the hell out of here before you get killed!" The men cleared a path for Otis to pass, shouting into the night, "Blood brother! Blood brother! Let him through!" 9

At dusk on Friday the 13th, the California National Guard arrived at the perimeters of Watts and were ordered to begin digging trenches at intersections. Unfortunately, this meant that the majority of residents of Watts who weren't participating in the chaos -- and they were in the majority -- were shut in with it. After a checkpoint was rammed by a car, soldiers were ordered to load their weapons and fix bayonets. That night the mysterious shooting deaths began. A man named Frank Posey was the first, cut down after stepping out of a barbershop at 89th and Broadway. 10 Doo-wop singer Charles Fizer, whose group the Olympics had recorded the original version of "Good Lovin'", was killed on his way to band rehearsal. 11 Comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, venturing out into his neighborhood to try to quell the looters, came across a small boy crying over a headless body. 12

The young jazz artists of Watts saw things no one their age should see. "There wasn't no police around, but you knew the things you were seeing were wrong," says Michael Session, who was being introduced to jazz via a his older brother. "We went to the liquor store down the street. there's glass, liquor from the bottles on the floor and everyone's walking over the glass and slipping around. almost everything in the store was gone." 13 At night, families turned their homes into fortresses. "We were sleeping on the floor at night because we were afraid of bullets flying through the house," recalls Rufus Olivier, who was 10 years old at the time. "If you went to the supermarket the whole store was lined with National Guard armed, every 10 feet was a soldier, and you just walked between them to go into the store." 14 Just as often, there were off-kilter scenes of revelry. "I remember in the daytime one guy came into the gardens with an old truck with a big back end full of piles of shoes, and the people came pouring out to grab them," chuckles Session. "I remember pulling out one shoe thinking, 'Now how the hell am I going to find the other one?'" 15

The older jazz musicians of Watts had varying reactions to the newly imposed 8 p.m. curfew, ranging from cavalier to cautious. Saxophonist Curtis Amy and his bandmate, pianist Onzy Matthews, decided to take in a baseball game every night the city burned instead of playing gigs or staying home, slipping out past the curfew and cruising together to Dodger Stadium under a blanket of acrid smoke. 16 By the third night, however, a 31-year-old sideman who worked with both Amy and Matthews did not have as carefree an experience.

Trombonist/pianist Horace Tapscott had a wife and family to support. Even without the current urban turmoil, he knew that making one's way around Los Angeles as a black jazz musician was always a dodgy effort. "It was dangerous for me to try to come home, coming out of the white neighborhood into mine alone," he said in a 1993 interview. "But as far as economically, making a little money during those times, it was pretty fruitful." 17 Unfortunately, his devoted wife Cecelia, whom he had collected from her job at the county hospital, was in the passenger seat. Both were anxious to get home to their five children but had the misfortune of living at 56th Street and Avalon Boulevard. They were stopped at a checkpoint right around the corner from their house and were confronted by a Guardsman -- essentially, a frightened child in uniform with an M-16. Tapscott, haunted by memories of racial violence from his youth in segregated Houston, saw the gun and saw red. Then the gun barrel turned towards Cecelia.

"He pointed his gun straight into the window," she recalls nearly 50 years later. "That was the first time I ever saw Horace really upset: 'Get that gun out of this car, we live here, we're on our way home, you got your gun in my wife's face.'" 18 Cecelia started to panic, and Tapscott, fighting to control his temper, turned to soothe her while keeping his voice loud enough for the figures with guns now surrounding the car: "You don't have to say a word to this motherfucker. You don't have to say nothing." After a few tense seconds, a senior L.A.P.D. officer intervened. "Where do you live sir?" he said by way of an apology before waving them through. Tapscott later found himself reflecting on the irony of the situation, "If it wasn't for the older policeman, we'd have been shot, because they had the orders to shoot to kill." 19

Even when the ruins of 103rd Street (now dubbed "Charcoal Alley") were still smoking embers, Tapscott would gather many of the young musicians of Watts -- Session, Roberts, Chancler and Olivier among them -- under the protective umbrella of his guerrilla jazz orchestra The Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra. The rigorous experience saved many of them. For one, Oliver, who would grow up to become the principal bassoonist for the San Francisco Symphony, lost several of his high school friends before they were the age of 25. 20

After the rebellion, the National Guard cordon and significant damage hobbled the local jazz clubs, and the working musicians of Watts were increasingly deprived of venues not just in South L.A. but the city as a whole. With haunts like the It Club closing and the Parisian Room limping along, jazz would have to return to the underground, in post-riot oases like the Watts Happening Coffee House and Studio Watts. The unofficial dividing line between black and white Angelenos -- the Santa Monica Freeway -- became a literal one. "Watts affected every person because that just severed relations," bassist Henry Franklin told an oral historian in 2001. "And white people stopped supporting the music in black areas. You go to any club in the area and it's going to be half white people and half black people. But [the riots] took out that half." 21 Bassist Patrick "Putter" Smith, an Irish-American from the suburb of Bell who had played Watts clubs since the 1950s, remembers a gig at a South L.A. venue called Godfathers in the early 1970s with the titanic hard-bop drummer Art Blakey. "There was almost no white people there. Art would get up and preach about the riots. He was telling the audience they had ruined it because white people were afraid to come down there: 'You really messed up, you scared them off,' he says, 'We need the white people in here too. you know jazz is not black its black and white. It's always been like that and that's what it is.' Thing was, the place was half-empty." 22

1 Ndugu Chancler, author interview (4/18/15)
2 Fuasi Abdul-Khaliq, transcript of unpublished interview with Steven Isoardi (12/21/01)
3 Carl Burnett, "Beyond Central Oral History" (UCLA: 2007)
4 Hampton Hawes with Don Asher, "Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hawes," p. 140-1
5 Charles Mingus, "Beneath the Underdog: His World As Composed by Mingus," p. 220
6 Buddy Collette, "Jazz Generations: A Life in American Music and Society," p. 173
7 Fuasi Abdul-Khaliq, transcript of unpublished interview with Steven Isoardi (12/21/01)
8 Ndugu Chancler, author interview (4/18/15)
9 George Lipsitz, "Midnight in the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story," p. xviii
10 Gerald Horne, "The Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s," p. 70
11 Andrew Grant Jackson, "1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music," p. 155
12 Dick Gregory with Sheila P. Moses, "Callus On My Soul: A Memoir," p. 110
13 Michael Session, author interview (3/17/15)
14 Rufus Olivier, author interview (4/15/15)
15 Michael Session, author interview (3/17/15)
16 Curtis Amy, "Beyond Central Oral History" (UCLA: 2002)
17 Horace Tapscott with Steve Isoardi, "Songs of the Unsung: The Musical and Social Journey of Horace Tapscott," p. 126
18 Cecelia Tapscott, author interview (2/27/14)
19 "Songs of the Unsung," p. 111
20 Rufus Olivier, author interview (4/15/15)

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Bringing the Watts rebellion, the rise of the carceral state, and the celebration of Wattstax into the same frame helps us to educate a new generation about the urban rebellions of the 1960s. As we work to incorporate the black freedom struggle “beyond Dixie” into our classrooms, seeing the many meanings of the events in Watts can provide students with new insight into both the past and the present moment. Given the wave of popular protests currently sweeping college campuses and the streets—and the outrage over recent pepper-spraying incidents by police—a revival of academic interest in urban rebellions seems inevitable. In the aftermath of last year’s social upheaval and massive public protest in the Middle East, Western Europe, and then the United States, celebrated by Wall Street demonstrators as the “Arab Spring, European Summer, and New York Fall,” what radical social historian E. P. Thompson so powerfully annointed “the moral economy of the crowd” has renewed meaning for many, both at home and abroad.

Gerald Horne, Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s (New York: Da Capo Press: 1997), 45–133 Heather Thompson, “Urban Uprisings: Riots or Rebellions,” in The Columbia Guide to America in the 1960s, ed. David Farber and Beth Bailey (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 109.

Horne, Fire This Time Horne, “Black Fire: ‘Riot’ and ‘Revolt’ in Los Angeles, 1965 and 1992” in Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California, ed. Lawrence B. De Graaf, Kevin Mulroy, and Quintard Taylor (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), 377–404.

Horne, Fire This Time, 134–67.

To familiarize students with the cross-currents surrounding Watts and the 1960s urban rebellions, there are a number of rich primary and secondary sources that offer competing points of view. Some excellent options include The McCone Commission Report on Watts, available online at The Kerner Commission Report, excerpts of which can be found here: James Baldwin, The Fire This Time Johnny Nash and Donald Warden’s performance and spoken word album, “Burn Baby Burn” writings by the Black Power activists who emerged in the wake of Watts, including Huey Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide (1973) and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (1970). For a broader social history of the West Coast Black Power movement that cohered in the wake of Watts, see Donna Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education and the Rise of the Black Panther Party (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010) Judson L. Jeffries and Malcolm Foley, “To Live and Die in L.A.” in Comrades: A Local History of the Black Panther Party ed. Judson L. Jeffries (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), pp. 255–90 Darnell Hunt, Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

Heather Thompson, “Urban Uprisings,” 109–17 Horne, “Black Fire Horne, Fire This Time Manning Marable, Race, Reform and Rebellion. The debate about the efficacy and rationality of popular street protest certainly did not start in postwar U.S. and African American history, and compelling parallels can be seen in E.P. Thompson’s revisionist history of working-class struggle in the “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past & Present 50 (February 1971): 76–136.

Horne, Fire This Time, 64–78 Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating The Future in Los Angeles (New York: Verso, 2006).

Bayard Rustin, “‘Black Power’ and Coalition Politics,” Commentary 42 (September 1966): 35–40.

Cleaver, Soul On Ice, 38 Horne, “Black Fire,” 381–82.

Martin Schiesl, “Behind the Shield: Social Discontent and the Los Angeles Police since 1950” in City of Promise: Race and Historical Change in Los Angeles, ed. Martin Schiesl and Mark M. Dodge, 137–74 Davis, City of Quartz Murch, Living for the City Horne, Fire This Time.

Washington Post, December 9, 1969, A1 Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 298 For Panthers’ account of this incident, see “Pigs Attack Southern California Chapter Of Black Panther Party,” The Black Panther, December 13, 1969. For a more comprehensive account of this development in the second half of the twentieth century, see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).

Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 221–64, 268. Article dates are misquoted in Davis’s footnotes. For correct article citations, see Los Angeles Times April 3, 1988 and April 6, 1988.

Donna Murch, Crack: A Social History, forthcoming book manuscript.

For recent historical scholarship on the modern American carceral state please see Heather Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History” Journal of American History (December 2010): 703–734 Donna Murch, Living for the City Christian Parenti, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (New York: Verso, 1999) Kelly Lytle Hernandez, MIGRA! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (University of California Press, 2010) Khalil Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Ideas about Race and Crime in the Making of Modern Urban America. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010) Robert Perkinson, Texas Tough: The Rise of a Prison Empire (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010) Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California, 2007).

Horne, The Fire This Time Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow.

Donna Murch, “The Urban Promise of Black Power: African American Political Mobilization in Oakland and the East Bay, 1961–1977,” (PhD diss., University of California Berkeley, 2005), 159.

This is not to imply that white anti-liberalism started in the late sixties. As Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, Heather Thompson’s “Mass Incarceration,” and my own book, Living for the City, have shown, white backlash had broader and deeper roots in postwar struggles over jobs, housing, schools, and black migration to northern cities that stretched back to the World War II era. Nevertheless, more historical scholarship is needed examining specific national and regional responses by local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to the radical social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. For important pioneering work in this regard, please see Christian Parenti, Lockdown America.

These Devastating Photographs of the Watts Riots and Their Aftermath May Shock You

Two soldiers of the National Guard sit on a bench in the middle of a street in Watts as they watch over the area. Los Angeles Public Library. A group of National Guardsmen in the western area of the Watts district take their positions, August 1965. Photo by Bettman/Getty Images. A member of the California National Guard patrols 103rd Street, Watts business district. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times. August 1965. Lee Benson, 184th Infantry, on the lookout for snipers during the Watts riots. August 1965. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection. Armed members of the National Guard aim their guns during the Watts riots, August 1965. Photo by Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images. Members of California&rsquos 40th Armored Division direct traffic away from a burning area of Los Angeles, August 1965. Courtesy of National Guard Education Foundation. Wikipedia. A truck convoy moves into the Watts district under orders to stop the riots. August 1965. Photo by Bettman/Getty Images. Burning Buildings During the Watts Riots, August 1965. Courtesy of New York World-Telegram. Library of Congress. Wikipedia. A ruined city block after the Watts riots, 1965. Photo by Bettman/Getty Images. Firefighters try to put out a fire, August 15, 1965. Photograph by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images. A jeep of National Guardsmen drive down a street in Watts that is reduced to rubble, 1965. Photography by PhotoQuest/Getty Images. Photograph of an overturned vehicle, August 13, 1965. Photograph by AP/Harold Filan. A view of a street destroyed in the Watts riots, August 1965. Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images. Firemen put out a burning building that once was a liquor store, a jeweler, and a restaurant. Police with rifles are standing guard. August 1965. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection. Fightfighter putting out a fire at a shoe store in Watts, August 14, 1965. Photo by AP. Three stores burning on Avalon Road, Watts riots, August 1965. Photo by Bettman/Getty Images. A man uses a bulldozer to start cleaning debris after the riots are over, August 18, 1965. Photo by AP/Ellis R. Bosworth. A man pushes two brooms to clean the sidewalk after the riots. August 1965. Photo by Bettman/Getty Images. The Hall of Justice crammed with people awaiting their riot hearings, August 19, 1965. Los Angeles Public Library. A group of children plays in the rubble after the riots, 1965. Photograph by Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

August 12, 1965: The Watts Section of Los Angeles Riots

August 12, 2015

Buildings shown on fire during the 1965 Watts riots. Thirty-four people died and an estimated $40 million in property damage was recorded. (Library of Congress)

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Summer is to riots as autumn is to financial meltdowns. On this day in 1965, the Watts section of Los Angeles convulsed with one of most damaging riots in American history. The Nation’s editor at the time, Carey McWilliams, was a longtime observer of life in California’s Southland and, especially, of its racial and economic tensions. His editorial about Watts, “The Forgotten Slum,” anticipates by almost three decades much of what that other great LA watcher, the historian Mike Davis, would write in his classic City of Quartz, which itself anticipated the explosive violence following the acquittal of Rodney King’s abusers, which anticipated Ferguson in 2014 and Baltimore in 2015…Round and round she goes, and where she stops nobody knows

Thirty-one dead, over 700 injured, 2,200 under arrest, 1,000 fires, property damage of $200 million—such is the preliminary toll for the long weekend of rioting in the Watts area of Los Angeles. A feverish search for scapegoats is now under way and will no doubt continue through the 1966 gubernatorial campaign…

The list is long and includes The Heat—a favorite scapegoat in all race-riot investigations—and Social Conditions. Here Watts qualifies on all counts: dropouts, delinquency, disease and dependency. But none of these social factors alone or in combination necessarily “cause” race riots, actually it is when conditions seem to be improving that the riots usually explode. Predictably the forthcoming investigation ordered by Governor Brown will stress the same tiresome clichés: police brutality, inadequate leadership, The Heat, slum conditions. All the while the truth about Watts is right there in front of people, in plain boldface type, for all to read: so simple that it is incredible. The hatred and violence of race riots is triggered by contempt, and of all forms of contempt the most intolerable is nonrecognition, the general unawareness that a minority is festering in squalor. Until the riots began, Watts had simply been forgotten by the encompassing ‘white’ community….

The sad fact is that most race riots have brought some relief and improvement in race relations and the Los Angeles riots will not be an exception. The seeming indifference of the larger community is structural. Los Angeles is the city of sprawl. To sprawl is to relax and feel comfortable. For most residents, Los Angeles is a comfortable city, psychologically as well as physically, because the unpleasant can be kept in its place—at a safe distance from most of the people. By accident more than design, Los Angeles has been organized to further the general tendency toward social indifference. The freeways have been carefully designed to skim over and skirt around such eyesores as Watts and portions of East Los Angeles even the downtown section, a portion of which has become a shopping area for minorities, has been partially bypassed. Now that the community knows once again that Watts exists, it will begin to pay some attention to its problems.

To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.

Watch the video: Watts Riots - 1965 (January 2022).