California: Watts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The community of Watts is best known for a six-day uprising by African Americans in August, 1965, that resulted in the deaths of thirty-four people and injuries to another thousand. Officials placed the damage to property at $200 million.

Site Office

Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC)

10950 South Central Avenue

Los Angeles, CA 90059

ph.: (213) 563-5642

fax: (213) 563-7307

Web site: www.wlcac.org

Rancho Tajuata was a Spanish holding located south of the pueblo of Los Angeles. Charles and Julia Watts purchased it in the late 1890’s; in 1902, they donated land for a train station that was called Watts Junction. Land around the station was divided, a city grid laid, and farmland subdivided into narrow lots. Reasonable prices drew working-class African American, Mexican, Japanese, and Swedish immigrants to the area. The formation of racial enclaves was enforced by law, as title deeds to single-family dwellings often included “racial covenants” restricting the ability of minorities to purchase land. Along Main Street to the east, Japanese families combined tracts to establish farms and gardens. To the southwest, farm labor attracted Mexican immigrants to an enclave called El Jardin (the garden). By 1912, the intersection of Pacific Electric street railway lines at the train station provided transportation and jobs for African American men. The combination of jobs and unincorporated farmland to the southeast created opportunities for African American residents; this early colony was named Mudtown. Watts was annexed by the city of Los Angeles in 1927.

Racial Conflict in Watts

Watts was a community with a history of racial turmoil. In the early part of the twentieth century, it was a community in transition, with a rapidly growing population. Natural growth as well as growth through immigration and migration brought racial groups into direct contact with one another. Vying for political control, economic resources, and housing, African Americans, Mexicans, and Anglos frequently found themselves in competition that bred distrust and often open hostility. As the city continued to grow through World War I, southern black migrants increasingly began settling in Watts or in the Central Avenue area. The population remained fairly equally divided between African Americans, Mexicans, and Anglos during the period following World War I. During the 1920’s, Ku Klux Klan activities increased in Watts, as was the case across the rest of the country. Heightened Klan activities only served to further divide an already racially divided community.

World War II witnessed dramatic increases in the population in Los Angeles. In search of jobs in the wartime industries, African Americans flooded Los Angeles and Watts, one result being increased housing shortages. As whites vacated areas and Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps, African Americans moved in, finding living quarters that were poorly maintained by absentee landlords. Unable to locate decent and affordable housing, others were forced to live in federal housing projects. These early projects, such as Hacienda Village, were created with the intent of housing racially and ethnically diverse populations; however, most were quickly occupied by African Americans. Several of these early projects were intended to serve as housing for war workers. After the war, most were converted into permanent dwellings.

By the time that World War II ended in 1945, African Americans made up two-thirds of the population in Watts. As their numbers increased, so did racial and class conflict. Racial conflicts arose as African American and Anglo students were encouraged to attend separate high schools to avoid intermingling. Class conflicts arose in Watts as African American natives tried to maintain their control of churches and recreational facilities against the barrage of southern blacks migrating to the area.

As the 1950’s approached, the Watts population steadily increased and economic conditions seemingly worsened. By the end of the 1950’s, roughly one-third of Watts residents lived in the projects. That decade also witnessed a marked decline in the number of families owning their homes. A related issue was the fact that the average age of Watts residents was decreasing rather dramatically so that by the early 1960’s, 60 percent of residents were less than twenty-five years old. Among this segment of the African American population, both underemployment and unemployment rates were high, which in part explains the decline in home ownership.

The production of housing, schools, and recreational facilities did not kept pace with the growing population. The result was overcrowded conditions in the schools, not enough space devoted to recreational facilities, and inadequate housing to meet the demands of a growing population.

By 1965, African American residents clearly had become disenchanted and dispossessed. Railroad tracks and the Harbor Freeway isolated the poorest residents, primarily those living in Watts, which is located east of the freeway. They were locked into a declining community where absentee landlords charged exorbitant rates for rent, where it was easier to buy liquor than to buy food, and where store owners charged outrageous prices for their merchandise and, for those without ready cash on hand, astronomical interest rates on merchandise that was financed.

History of the Uprising

Like many other cities around the country during the same time period, Watts was a city on the verge of explosion. In his 1963 work The Fire Next Time, writer James Baldwin poetically forewarns the nation of the inevitable episodes of deadly racial violence that will take place across the country if African Americans continue to be disproportionately plagued by unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, and social inequality as a result of racism and discrimination.

The Watts uprising began during the summer of 1965, in the middle of a heat wave in which temperatures were recorded as high as 97 degrees Fahrenheit. The spark that set off the subsequent episodes of violence and arson came when two black men were arrested by white police officers for a traffic violation. The arresting police officers and their vehicle were attacked by the crowd for using excessive force against the men and their mother, who joined in the confrontation. In only a short time, local businesses were ablaze as residents wreaked havoc on the area by looting and setting fires.

Even though the immediate cause of the violence in Watts can be traced to the conflict with the police officers, this particular incident only added fuel to a fire that was already smoldering. A year earlier, in the summer of 1964, similar events took place in New York City and Rochester, New York; Jersey City, Paterson, and Elizabeth, New Jersey; Chicago; and Philadelphia. Although the precise factors leading to these uprisings differed, similiar circumstances linked them together.

According to the controversial McCone Commission, the official committee assigned to write the report on what was termed the Watts riots, three central factors were common in all these conflicts: first and foremost, a high rate of unemployment and underemployment; second, poor schools; and third, resentment toward white police officers patrolling black neighborhoods. Although the report from the McCone Commission has received much criticism from scholars for both its blatant racism and its racist overtures, it is worth discussing the problems in this community as officially recorded.

The lack of jobs and the unavailability of training for employment was a continuous problem for the residents of Watts. National efforts to alleviate joblessness and poverty, known as the War on Poverty, had done little to remedy this situation in Watts. Local welfare programs had also fallen short. Based on figures taken from the U.S. Census Bureau, the unemployment rate in South Central Los Angeles in 1965 exceeded 10 percent. Aside from unemployment and underemployment, the residents of Watts also faced job shortages and low-wage employment. Even those with high school diplomas often faced grim possibilities in the employment arena. Nearly 25 percent of those with diplomas were unable to secure employment of any kind.

Census records and other government documents substantiate claims made in the McCone Report regarding unemployment and poverty rates in Watts; however, what was missing from the report was the role of racism and discrimination in perpetuating unemployment and poverty in Watts and similar areas.

The report also suggested that the lack of adequate public transportation served to isolate Watts residents, making it difficult to secure employment outside the community. Critics argue that this explanation is both an exaggeration of the transportation problem and an oversimplification of the causes of high unemployment rates among Watts residents. While the McCone Report argued that only 14 percent of residents in South Central Los Angeles owned one or more cars, the 1965 Census reports the figure to be 65 percent. Although a factor, clearly poor public transportation could not be used as a fundamental ingredient contributing to unemployment in the area.

One of the most controversial aspects of the McCone Report was the discussion regarding the relationship between white police officers and the black residents of Watts, which members of the committee characterized as antagonistic. It was argued that residents simply resented the fact that white officers patrolled their neighborhoods and possessed the legal authority to arrest black residents. Little was made of the role that these police officers played in creating the antagonistic relationship with the residents of Watts, or in the case of the actual uprising, how the use of excessive force by police officers served to exacerbate an already volatile situation. The report instead argued that in cases where excessive force was used, the police officers were provoked. The report acknowledged that complaints of police brutality were common in Watts but absolved white officers of any real guilt by suggesting that they used necessary force based on the particular situation.

Long before August, 1965, the relationship between Watts residents and the white police officers patrolling the area was strained. According to residents, white police officers were notorious for treating blacks with disdain, viewing most as the stereotypical criminal prone to violent behavior. Even William Parker, the chief of police at the time, held similar views of Watts residents, referring to participants in the uprising as “monkeys.”

One of the primary questions posed by uninformed outsiders looking at the Watts situation was why the violence took place there and at that particular juncture. The McCone Report aside, why did residents in Watts participate in actions that would have a devastating impact on their community for years to come?

All these factors taken together, Watts was a community ripe for conflict. Poor Watts residents, seeing the lush lawns, tennis courts, and swimming pools of whites and some middle-class blacks in nearby neighborhoods, clearly understood that alternatives existed. The events of 1965 can therefore be viewed as an attempt by the residents of Watts to gain a sense of agency over their lives. Uprisings like the one in Watts have often been characterized by the media and onlookers as mass, unintelligible riots. More recently, scholars have begun to dispute such claims.

This revisionist literature frequently makes use of oral interviews and often incorporates race, class, and gender as critical modes of analysis. For example, early reports of the uprising in Watts–even official records such as the McCone Report–suggested that the rioters haphazardly destroyed property in the community with little regard to the owners or use of those buildings. In reassessing this point, scholars have noted that participants were selective in their destruction of property, choosing the businesses of merchants notorious for overcharging for their merchandise, businesses with owners or employees who were hostile or rude to black residents, and businesses viewed as detrimental to the community, such as liquor stores. Because of their own racism and class prejudice, many of the early reporters of the Watts uprising missed these not-so-subtle aspects of the violence.

Like the McCone Report, many of these early records also used inherently racist theories to explain the behavior of “rioters.” The riffraff theory is one example. In applying this theory to Watts, the McCone Commission suggested that the rioters represented only a small segment of Watts residents, those on the periphery of mainstream African American society, characterized as uneducated newcomers or juvenile delinquents. The assumption was that the vast majority of African Americans were not disgruntled. Clearly, however, most Watts residents were not content. Society had failed them on a variety of levels. In some ways, the uprising can be viewed as an attempt to draw national attention to the plight of those living in the area. Most residents recognized that filing formal grievances against police brutality or petitioning for more and better schools and programs to alleviate poverty carried little weight. These avenues had been taken, mostly to no avail.

Although lessons were learned from the violence in Watts, racial tensions remain. Nearly thirty years later, in 1992, the Los Angeles area would experience yet another violent racial uprising, this time revolving around the brutal beating of African American motorist Rodney King by white police officers. However, it is significant that South Central Los Angeles and other areas around Southern California, and not Watts, experienced the resulting anger and violence.

Watts Today

Everyday citizens, community leaders, politicians, and organizations rallied to help rebuild Watts. Many of the businesses and organizations that remain today were created immediately following the events of 1965, including the Watts Health Foundation, The King/Drew Medical Center, Drew University, the Bank of America, and the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), a nonprofit organization founded by Ted Watkins. Poverty remains, but some residents of Watts now seek to celebrate the diverse and colorful history of their community.

A popular tourist destination in Los Angeles is the Watts Towers. These nine sculptures, perhaps the nation’s best-known work of folk art sculpture, were built by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia from 1921 to 1955 as a tribute to his adopted country. The towers, the tallest almost one hundred feet high, are made from steel pipes and rods wrapped with wire mesh, coated with mortar, and embedded with seventy thousand pieces of porcelain, tile, and glass. Rodia used simple hand tools and cast-off materials such as broken glass, sea shells, pottery, and ceramic tile. The Watts Towers, one of only nine works of folk art listed on the National Register of Historic Places, are located at 1765 East 107th Street.

The Watts Towers Art Center, often called simply the Center, sponsors exhibits, classes, and other cultural events. It is located next to the towers at 10950 South Central Avenue. This seven-acre enclosed site contains the bronze sculpture The Mother of Humanity, a facade depicting sites in old Los Angeles called Mudtown Flats, and the Ted Watkins Center for Communication, which includes the Civil Rights Museum.

For Further Informationq
  • Baldassare, Mark, ed. The Los Angeles Riots: Lessons for the Urban Future. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994.
  • Bontemps, Arna. God Sends Sunday. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1931. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1972. In this novel, Harlem Renaissance artist and writer Bontemps wrote about the early colony of Mudtown: “The small group in Mudtown was exceptional. Here removed from the influences of white folks, they did not acquire the inhibitions of their city brothers. Mudtown was like a tiny section of the Deep South literally transplanted.”
  • Bullock, Paul. Watts: The Aftermath, an Inside View of the Ghetto by the People of Watts. New York: Grove Press, 1969.
  • Fogelson, Robert M. Mass Violence in America: The Los Angeles Riots. New York: Arno Press/The New York Times, 1969.
  • Gooding-Williams, Robert, ed. Reading Rodney King, Reading Urban Uprising. New York: Routledge, 1993.
  • Horne, Gerald. Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960’s. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.
  • Ray, MaryEllen Bell. The City of Watts, California, 1907 to 1926. Los Angeles: Rising, 1985. This book, written for young people, traces the history of Watts from its origins as a small Spanish land grant to its consolidation with Los Angeles.
  • Sears, David. The Politics of Violence: The New Urban Blacks and the Watts Riot. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981.
  • Sonenshein, Raphael. Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
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