Eve of Destruction: The 1965 Watts Riots

Photo by CBS News

Let me know if you’ve heard this one before. If you haven’t, you need to.

On Wednesday, August 11, 1965, a routine traffic stop resulting in a drunk-driving arrest sparked off six days of rioting in Watts, one of the few African-American neighborhoods in heavily-segregated Los Angeles. When it was all over, 34 people were dead, and more than 1,000 had been injured.

Lee W. Minikus, a white member of the Los Angeles Highway Patrol, pulled over 21-year-old Marquette Frye, a black man from Watts, and his brother, alleging they were speeding. Frye failed a field sobriety test, and as the incident was only two blocks from his home, his mother heard the news and arrived to scold him. A large crowd gathered as an agitated Marquette began to resist arrest.

One of the officers drew a gun and Mrs. Frye, fearful for her son’s life, jumped on his back. All three family members were arrested. Enraged residents of Watts started to protest as the police cruisers pulled away. Events escalated when rumors spread that the police had assaulted Marquette, his mother, and his pregnant girlfriend. Chaos would reign in Watts for the next five days.

Only twenty years earlier as World War II was ending, half a million African-Americans headed for the West Coast cities, hoping to escape the racial prejudice that plagued them back east. Unfortunately, they faced housing, employment, education, and political discrimination as bad as what they’d experienced in Detroit, Boston, and New York.

The revolt that erupted on August 11, 1965, mirrored the anger of the Watts citizens at the injustice thrust upon them in the inner city. Even though the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, many states found ways to dilute or negate it, such as California’s Proposition 14, which attempted to undo the Fair Housing provision of the Act. This long-simmering resentment exploded with the Frye family acting as the catalyst.

Approximately 10,000 African Americans took to the streets setting fires, assaulting white people, and looting stores. By Friday, California’s lieutenant governor felt it necessary to call in the National Guard. The next day 14,000 troops were patrolling the area, and a curfew had been put in place.

President Lyndon Johnson white-splained in August 1965:

“It is our duty -- and it is our desire -- to open our hearts to humanity’s cry for help. It is our obligation to seek to understand what could lie beneath the flames that scarred that great city. So let us equip the poor and the oppressed -- let us equip them for the long march to dignity and to well-being. But let us never confuse the need for decent work and fair treatment with an excuse to destroy and to uproot. ...”

Yeah, sure, dude. Way to platitude and completely miss the point.

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived in Watts on August 17. His mission was to offer support and hope to those living in the ghetto and bolster the alliance between blacks and whites working together for the civil rights cause. So what did King have to say about the riots that caused 34 deaths and 1,000 injuries, and resulted in 4,000 arrests and $40 million worth of property damage?

Dr. King deplored the use of violence during the riots but quickly pointed out that the root cause was ‘‘environmental and not racial. 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.’’

Later that fall, King stated that the city of Los Angeles should have seen the writing on the wall in an article he wrote for Saturday Review:

“… when its officials tied up federal aid in political manipulation; when the rate of Negro unemployment soared above the depression levels of the 1930s; when the population density of Watts became the worst in the nation …”

If any of this piques your sense of deja vu, congratulations. You have more on the ball mentally than millions of your fellow Americans.

is a political junkie and history buff randomly alternating between bouts of crankiness and amusement while bearing witness to the Apocalypse. Come along!

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