Watts Riot

Days after the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the African American community in Los Angeles began to riot, burning, looting, and attacking white persons and their property.

Summary of Event

On the evening of August 11, 1965, on one of the hottest days of the year in Los Angeles, California, the black community erupted in what has come to be called the “Watts riot.” Thirty-four people were killed, approximately four thousand were arrested, and more than $40 million in property damage was caused by the riot. It was estimated that ten thousand people participated. Watts Riot (1965)
Civil unrest;United States
African Americans;riots
Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans
[kw]Watts Riot (Aug. 11-17, 1965)
[kw]Riot, Watts (Aug. 11-17, 1965)
Watts Riot (1965)
Civil unrest;United States
African Americans;riots
Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans
[g]North America;Aug. 11-17, 1965: Watts Riot[08500]
[g]United States;Aug. 11-17, 1965: Watts Riot[08500]
[c]Social issues and reform;Aug. 11-17, 1965: Watts Riot[08500]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 11-17, 1965: Watts Riot[08500]
Brown, Edmund G., Sr.
Yorty, Samuel
King, Martin Luther, Jr.
[p]King, Martin Luther, Jr.;racial uprisings

It came as a surprise to many that Los Angeles would be the scene of one of the most violent conflicts in the United States during the twentieth century. Most visitors to the black community in Los Angeles remarked on the fact that the community did not have the physical ugliness and dilapidated conditions of ghettos in the East, Midwest, and South. Moreover, black Los Angeles did not have the tension-ridden history of other areas; for example, by 1741 New York City had experienced two major slave rebellions in which blacks had tried to burn down the entire city and had almost succeeded. Although blacks had participated in the founding of Los Angeles in 1781, an 1880 census showed that there were only about one hundred African Americans in the city. The black population of Los Angeles began to expand dramatically during World War II, when a need for labor in the area led to large-scale black migration.

A turning point came when the Japanese American community was interned; “Little Tokyo” became “Bronzeville,” Bronzeville and the first black ghetto in Los Angeles was born. Watts itself was known as “Mudtown” and was multiracial until the war, when black migrants from Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana particularly began to pour into the city. Although Los Angeles was viewed by some as a sunny paradise, African Americans there encountered restrictive racial covenants that limited their ability to leave the ghetto, police brutality, employment discrimination, and many of the ills that they had hoped to leave behind. The riot itself was a culmination of the accumulated anger, disappointment, and pain encountered by African Americans in Los Angeles.

The riot was precipitated by the stopping of Marquette Frye Frye, Marquette , an African American male, by the California Highway Patrol. Frye was stopped for speeding and appeared intoxicated. As he was being questioned, a crowd gathered, and the officers decided to call for reinforcements. To that point, Frye had complied with the officers’ requests, but then his mother appeared on the scene and began to berate him. Frye then became unruly, and the decision was made to arrest him and take him away.

A highway patrolman—apparently mistakenly—struck a bystander with his billy club. A young African American woman, who was accused of spitting on an officer, was dragged into the middle of the street. A rumor circulated that a pregnant woman had been attacked by the officers (actually, the woman in question was not pregnant but happened to be wearing a barber’s smock).

When the officers departed with the Fryes, the crowd erupted. Rocks and other missiles were hurled at passing cars. White motorists were pulled from their cars and beaten, and their cars were set on fire. Law enforcement authorities reacted hesitantly at first, overwhelmed and stunned by the ferocity of the crowd.

The following day, the area was calm, but that evening the pattern of violence was repeated; however, not until almost thirty hours after the initial flare-up did window smashing, looting, and arson begin. These events were concentrated in Watts, two miles from the location of the original disturbance. The looting and arson spread rapidly throughout the black community of Los Angeles, eventually encompassing a 46.5-square-mile region.

The pattern of the riot shifted over time from random attacks on whites to attacks on property, particularly large stores that were viewed as exploiting the community. A number of black-owned businesses escaped damage by conspicuously posting “Blood Brother,” or similarly worded signs. A number of small businesses that were not perceived as being exploitative managed to escape damage. It was this pattern that led many in the African American community to view the events not as an inchoate riot but rather as a revolt against perceived oppression.

In any event, the combined forces of the California Highway Patrol, the Los Angeles Police Department, and officers dispatched by the Los Angeles County Sheriff were unable to stop the violence. Ultimately, the National Guard was called in; eventually, seventeen thousand heavily armed troops were required to subdue the riot—more forces than were used to subjugate the Dominican Republic that same year.

Subsequently, a controversy erupted when Lieutenant Governor Glenn Anderson Anderson, Glenn was accused of temporizing in calling for the National Guard. Governor Edmund G. Brown, Sr., was traveling in Greece at the riot’s beginning but flew back immediately upon hearing of the disturbance. Los Angeles Mayor Samuel Yorty was criticized for leaving town during the height of the riot. Black leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., were brought in in an effort to quell the uprising, but to no avail. Indeed, the well-known black activist and performer Dick Gregory Gregory, Dick was shot in the leg during his attempt to stop what was happening.

Of the estimated thirty-four people who were killed, only two were affiliated with law enforcement and fire authorities; those who were killed and injured were overwhelmingly African American. Most of those who died were killed during the evening of Friday, August 13, and the morning of August 14.

By August 17, the riot had dissipated. Governor Brown appointed a commission of inquiry headed by a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John McCone McCone, John , that included future deputy secretary of state Warren Christopher Christopher, Warren . In December, 1965, the McCone Commission McCone Commission[Maccone Commission] issued a report that outlined what had happened and suggested why. The commission pointed to unemployment, poor public transportation, general racial discrimination, and inadequate housing as underlying causes of the riot. It also proposed a number of remedies and prescriptions.


Coming as it did a few days after the signing into law of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Watts riot marked a new stage in the Civil Rights movement. It signaled that all problems of racism were not concentrated in the South and caused Martin Luther King, Jr.—who had been repudiated by rioters—to focus more intently on the North and West. Watts gave rise to new militant trends among African Americans. A Community Alert Patrol was devised to monitor the police, and this led to the formation of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense Black Panther Party for Self-Defense[Black Panther Party for Self Defense] in 1966. Ron Karenga Karenga, Ron was inspired by the revolt to devise a “cultural nationalist” program that led directly to the 1960’s trend of “Black is beautiful” and the later trend of Afrocentrism.

The riot also was not helpful to the political career of Governor Brown; the riot and the student protests at Berkeley in 1964 were major factors in Brown’s defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald in 1966 in Reagan’s first effort to attain political office. Governor Reagan was essential in reviving the conservative movement in the United States, which had suffered what some had seen as a maiming blow when Barry Goldwater was soundly defeated for the presidency in 1964. The Reagan victory in turn underscored the importance of the “crime in the streets” theme as a riveting one for many U.S. voters—a theme that was utilized skillfully by Richard M. Nixon during his victorious presidential campaign of 1968.

The riot also had a significant impact on African Americans in California. A hospital was built in South-Central Los Angeles; the absence of such a facility had been a primary complaint of the area’s residents. A shopping center was built so that residents did not have to travel miles simply to buy groceries. Housing units were built. The University of California and the University of Southern California began to admit more African American students. Local businesspeople and local government initiated programs to address the problem of black unemployment. The riot also highlighted the ongoing issue of police brutality.

The cultural arena may have been most significantly affected by the riot. Budd Schulberg Schulberg, Budd , a well-known screenwriter and novelist and the son of a major film-industry executive, initiated a writers’ workshop that helped produce a number of prominent African American writers. There was a general cultural renaissance in black Los Angeles that spread across the nation. The fact that the riot took place in Los Angeles meant that the entertainment industry based there was affected. From August, 1965, it was possible to discern an increased employment of African American actors, technical personnel, and themes in film and television. Watts Riot (1965)
Civil unrest;United States
African Americans;riots
Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans

Further Reading

  • Balbus, Isaac D. The Dialectics of Legal Repression: Black Rebels Before the American Criminal Courts. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1973. Although it ranges broadly, this work does include a useful discussion of the riot.
  • Bullock, Paul, ed. Watts, the Aftermath: An Inside View of the Ghetto, by the People of Watts. New York: Grove Press, 1969. By concentrating on the words of the residents of black Los Angeles, this book provides one of the better views of the motivations and actions of those who participated in the riot.
  • Cohen, Jerry, and William S. Murphy. Burn, Baby, Burn! The Los Angeles Race Riot, August, 1965. New York: Dutton, 1966. This is a journalistic account that includes graphic photographs. It is not, however, a good reference tool.
  • Conot, Robert F. Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness. New York: Bantam Books, 1967. Although it is a journalistic account and not a helpful reference tool, this remains the best and most complete account of the riot. The author received the cooperation of law enforcement authorities; apparently some of the records he relied on were subsequently lost or destroyed.
  • Crump, Spencer. Black Riot in Los Angeles. Los Angeles: Trans-Anglo Books, 1966. Although thinly documented, this book has the advantage of including highly illustrative photographs. It also reflects a black point of view.
  • Horne, Gerald. Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960’s. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997. History of the Watts Riot tracing its causes back to McCarthyism and the “Red Scare” of the 1950’s, which the author believes silenced the political Left in Los Angeles, creating a vacuum that radical black nationalism came to fill in the 1960’s. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Ridenour, Ron, Anne Leslie, and Victor Oliver. The Fire This Time: The W. E. B. Du Bois Club’s View of the Explosion in South Los Angeles. Los Angeles: W. E. B. Du Bois Club, 1965. A partisan and Marxist view of the riot.
  • Sears, David, and John McConahay. The Los Angeles Riot Study, the Politics of Discontent: Blocked Mechanisms of Grievance Redress and the Psychology of the New Urban Black Man. Los Angeles: Institute of Government and Public Affairs, University of California, 1967. A major sociopsychological study of riot participants, focusing on African American males.
  • _______. The Politics of Violence: The New Urban Blacks and the Watts Riot. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973. A more accessible and less jargon-ridden version of the above-listed study.

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