Rebellion in Watts

August 11, 2015

The Watts uprising showed that the Black struggle was moving north--and turning toward issues of poverty, inequality and police violence. Alan Maass explains.

[The year 1965] will probably be the longest, hottest, bloodiest summer that has yet been seen in the United States since the beginning of the Black Revolution, primarily because the same causes that existed in the winter of 1964 still exist in January, in February of 1965...[These causes are] inferior housing, inferior employment, inferior education. All of the evils of a bankrupt system still exist where Black Americans are concerned...
-- Malcolm X

MALCOLM X never learned how right he was in that prediction. He was assassinated weeks after he made it, on February 21, 1965.

Less than half a year later, the Watts neighborhood and ultimately all of South Los Angeles erupted in protest, rioting and clashes with police. A 46-square-mile area of the third-largest city in America at the time was gripped for days by an insurrectionary rebellion--the "longest, hottest, bloodiest" event of its kind in U.S. history to that point.

Malcolm was right about the "whys," too. The Watts rebellion began, like the handful of uprisings immediately before it and the dozens and dozens in the years after, with an incident of police abuse and violence. But the six days of rioting were driven not only by confrontations with the armed agents of the state, but an outburst of pent-up anger at the "evils of a bankrupt system" that had consigned African Americans to second-class citizenship for generations, and not just in the Jim Crow South.

Residents of the LA neighborhood of Watts during the 1965 rebellion
Residents of the LA neighborhood of Watts during the 1965 rebellion

The reaction of the political and media establishment to Watts will be familiar from the coverage today of the demonstrations in Ferguson after Mike Brown's murder, nearly on the anniversary of Watts last year, or the revolt against another police killing in Baltimore earlier this year.

Los Angeles' revered police chief William Parker compared the residents of South Los Angeles to "monkeys in the zoo." Conservative ideologue Edward Banfield later described the series of urban rebellions of the 1960s as "outbreaks of animal spirits and of stealing by slum dwellers."

In reality, the Watts uprising ushered in a new period of the Black freedom struggle that transformed American political life, like the civil rights movement before it.

Coming five days after Voting Rights Act of 1965--the second of two major pieces of federal legislation that dismantled legalized discrimination in the South--Watts showed that the Black struggle was moving onto a new terrain. As Cleveland Sellers, an activist in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, later recalled:

We were all very conscious of the fact that the axis of the struggle appeared to be shifting away from the rural south to the cities in the North. The totally unexpected rebellions in Harlem, Watts, Chicago and Philadelphia made a big impact on our thinking.

After Watts, the liberals of the Democratic Party--at this time in control of both Congress and the White House--could no longer pretend that racism was a problem of the backward Southern states. The whole of the U.S. political establishment, Democratic and Republican, was forced to respond, as contributor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote:

[T]he rebellions raised basic questions about American democracy and American society in general. In fact, it was the widespread and continuous nature of the riots that turned them from episodic outbreaks of discontent into a force that transformed U.S. politics. The issues that defined the urban crisis--poor housing, police brutality, poor schools and unemployment, among others--went from being politically peripheral to what President Lyndon Johnson termed "the nation's most urgent task."

Thus, the urban rebellions of the 1960s arguably constituted the most important political events of the decade. Over the course of the 1960s, public spending on housing and other urban issues went from $600 million at the beginning of the decade to more than $3 billion by the decade's end--and the federal government created the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

From this increase in spending to the spreading discussion about urban conditions during the 1960s, it's difficult to believe that any of this would have unfolded if not for the rebellions that made public the horrid conditions in which Black families struggled to survive.

AUGUST 11, 1965 was "hotter than hell" in Los Angeles, according to the cop who struck the spark that set off the Watts Rebellion.

Around 6 p.m., Lee Minikus, a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer, pulled over 21-year-old Marquette Frye at the intersection of Segundo and Avalon, southwest of the Watts neighborhood, and arrested him on charges of drunk driving. Frye and his brother Ronald, a passenger in the car, were a few blocks from home when Minikus pulled them over. Alerted to the arrest, Marquette's mother Rena Price came from her house to find her son being manhandled by Minikus and fellow white police officers.

Price was shoved from behind and jumped on the back of the cop who was holding Marquette, causing the gathering crowd of Black residents to cheer. One officer hit Marquette in the head with his baton, and all three family members were arrested. Lacine Holland, a county worker who was in the neighborhood to pick up her children after work, remembered watching the police take Marquette and "throw him in the car like a bag of laundry."

Tensions continued to rise after the first arrestees were taken away. Holland watched as a cop, who had been spit at by someone in the crowd, grabbed a woman at random from among the onlookers and yanked her "so strong that her hair rollers fell out."

As the sun set and word about the arrests and brutality spread through the neighborhood, more and more people came out into the streets. Police cars that ventured into the area were met by a hail of stones and bricks--so were vehicles driven by white drivers.

The next target for angry residents was white-owned businesses. Watts was part of the South Los Angeles area that had become the only housing option for the large migration of African Americans into the city.

After the Second World War, an estimated 95 percent of LA housing was off limits to African Americans and Asians due to a system of restrictive housing covenants that enforced de facto segregation even after the covenants were declared illegal. The state legislature passed the Rumford Fair Housing Act in 1963 to try to end racist discrimination against renters and home buyers--but the real estate industry mobilized the next year to win the passage, thanks to a majority of white voters, of Proposition 14, which overturned the law.

Blacks in South Los Angeles endured substandard schools, hospitals and other services, and industrial jobs were drying up--but the stores and businesses of the area remained white-owned. As Tommy Jacquette, a South Central LA resident who was 21 at the time of the rebellion, told the Los Angeles Times in 2005:

People said that we burned down our community. No, we didn't. We had a revolt in our community against those people who were in here trying to exploit and oppress us. We did not own this community. We did not own the businesses in this community. We did not own the majority of the housing in this community.

Betty Pleasant, who in 1965 was a young journalist for the Los Angeles Sentinel, the city's main Black newspaper, pointed out in an LA Times interview that there were still a lot of stores and businesses in the area at the time, but "as far as the residents were concerned...they were white-owned stores, selling substandard stuff for high prices."

Pleasant described watching a crowd as it:

moved to the big supermarket on 103rd Street that was notorious for selling awful food. Several months before, I covered a demonstration there where people were trying to get them to sell better meat, better baked goods, better produce. They burned it...down. I don't think they even bothered to loot that sucker.

On the corner of 92nd and Wilmington was a very small, tiny grocery store owned by an elderly Black couple. Their store was untouched, because word went around not to touch this one because it was Black-owned.

Clearly, the target of the "rioters" wasn't general mayhem, but the very specific symbols of the neighborhood's grievances: police and property. In all, nearly 1,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed, and property damage was estimated at $40 million.

The police steered clear of the area for the first two days, according to residents. But eventually, the state government responded to LAPD chief Parker's call for the help from the National Guard. With martial law declared, it took nearly 14,000 National Guard troops to quell the rebellion, which involved an estimated 35,000 adults directly participating.

THE FOLLOWING week, after the unrest had mostly subsided, Martin Luther King toured Watts, along with activist Dick Gregory. Their message of nonviolence and de-escalation didn't go down well--Gregory was shot in the leg by a sniper when he used a police bullhorn to urge people to stay off the streets.

In talking to King, one youth summed up the message of the Watts Rebellion: "We won because we made them pay attention."

After so many years of the conditions for Blacks in Northern cities being ignored--even as the attention of the world was focused on the Jim Crow South--this was an achievement in itself. But Watts made the political and business elite of America do more than "pay attention."

There were many more urban rebellions to come in the next three summers after Watts, including an even more insurrectionary one in 1967 in Detroit, which was then still the citadel of the auto industry and industrial America in general.

This was a threat not just to the image of the U.S. overseas, which the civil rights movement had accomplished with mass nonviolent direct action, but to the functioning of the capitalist economy.

The president of Illinois Bell Telephone spelled out the dollars-and-cents logic explicitly, referring to housing justice protests in Chicago in 1966: "The demonstrators had the power to disrupt, even to destroy...more than 75 percent of the company's investment of roughly $2.5 billion within 35 or 40 miles of our downtown headquarters building. Unlike many other businesses, we cannot pull stakes and move away."

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor points out, this material threat to profits seemed to drive Illinois Bell's participation in a corporate coalition dedicated to creating more housing opportunities for Blacks in Chicago. Of course, these same business interests nurtured a right-wing, "law and order" backlash against the increasingly militant demands of the Black movement. Republican Richard Nixon rode the backlash to victory in the 1968 presidential election.

BUT THE combination of the civil rights movement and the wave of urban unrest had transformed popular consciousness already. In a Harris poll conducted after Watts, the top three concerns of all Americans, not just Blacks, were, in order: hunger, "the way Negroes have been treated" and housing conditions.

By 1968, even the Republicans adopted a party platform at their national convention that called for new government initiatives around housing and mass transit, and promised a "just society that would eliminate the causes of violence."

Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" programs had been launched the year before Watts, but they were explicitly directed at the underlying conditions that gave rise to such social explosions.

The content of these programs--job training, housing assistance, food stamps and other forms of social welfare--was an unspoken admission that the U.S. political establishment understood those conditions were "economic" in character, and not the fault of the Black community, as so many political and media voices have claimed in the years of retreat since.

Meanwhile, the Black struggle, along with the radical left in the U.S. and around the world, was transformed by the upsurge of urban rebellions in the late 1960s and the associated rise of the Black Power movement.

By 1968, the same Martin Luther King who had been heckled in Watts for his moderation had this to say about the urban rebellions:

Without this magnificent ferment among Negroes, the old evasions and procrastinations would have continued indefinitely. Black men have slammed the door shut on a past of deadening passivity...

In these trying circumstances, the Black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws--racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing the evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.

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