The Watt’s Riots: A Tale of Racial Injustice

On August 11, 1965, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, the United States reaffirmed that racial tensions were high and that the storm was far from being over and gone.

In the predominately black ‘Watts’ neighborhood of Los Angeles, these tensions reached a breaking point. A white California Highway Patrolman arrested Marquette Frye, a young African-American motorist, on suspicion of drunken driving.

A crowd of spectators gathered near the corner of Avalon Boulevard on 116h Street to watch the arrest. The event would soon turn violent as the onlookers believed it to be yet another incident of racially motivated abuse by the police.

What started as a discontented crowed soon turned into a large-scale riot in the center of the commercial section of Watts – a deeply impoverished section of the community in South Central Los Angeles. For several days, rioters overturned and burned automobiles and looted grocery stores, liquor stores, department stores and pawn shops.

The riot lasted for six days.

Over the course of this riot, more than 14,000 California National Guard troops were mobilized in South Los Angeles and a curfew zone covering a 45 mile radius was established to restore public order.

In total, the rioting claimed the lives of thirty-four people. It also resulted in 1,032 injuries and nearly 4,000 arrests. There was an estimated 40 million dollars worth of property damage.

This riot was considered to be the worst urban uprising in nearly twenty years. Following this moment, multiple riots would ensue in the coming years, including the Detroit Riots and Newark Riots of 1967.

Following the event, public officials argued that this riot was the work of outside agitators. However, an official investigation by Governor Pat Brown’s gubernatorial commission found that the disturbance was the result of the Watt’s community’s longstanding grievances caused by high unemployment rates, substandard housing, and inadequate schools.

Despite the reports findings, city leaders and state officials failed to implement any measures to improve the social and economic standards of the African-American community in the Watt’s neighborhood.

Often times, we read about uprisings like this during the Civil Rights era. We hear horror stories of protestors being mercilessly beaten, punished with fire hoses, and attacked by dogs.

We think of all of these things as moments in the past. We believe that the this dark period in our nation’s history is over – though it didn’t happen that long ago. Yet, ghosts of this moment still lurk.

We still have the stories of Ferguson, Baltimore, and countless other acts of potentially racially motivated acts happening everyday. It would seem that we are not free of the racist attitudes that have long plagued our nation’s history.

What’s important to understand when reading history is that just because something existed in the past does not mean it has stayed there. It does not mean that the wounds have been healed. It does not mean the incident was isolated.

We cannot do ourselves the disservice of pretending that racism is done, that the justice system is color-blind, and that minority youths are given every opportunity white youths are.

That would be an ignorant, historically inaccurate, and deeply misguided analysis.

We don’t have to agree with violence. Most don’t. In fact, it was Martin Luther King Jr. who said that, “violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral.”

But, we don’t have to agree with the methods of the movement to agree with the principle of that movement.

Dr. King also said that, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

History give us truth. It is our duty to recognize it. History gives us reason. It’s our duty to fight for it.

-History Hero


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