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On This Day: Watts Riots Erupt in Los Angeles

Last updated: February 13, 2023

On Aug. 11, 1965, a routine traffic stop ignited a six-day race riot in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. The riots left 34 dead and more than 1,000 injured.

Traffic Stop Sparks Watts Riots

In 1965, Watts, one of the few Los Angeles neighborhoods where African Americans were allowed to live, was a tense area. Unemployment was high, there was no hospital, and the police force was mostly white. The Civil Rights Act had passed in 1964, but some states tried to get around the new law.

California was one of them. The state created Proposition 14, which attempted to block the fair housing portion of the Civil Rights Act. “This created anger and a feeling of injustice within the inner cities,” according to PBS.

“The ghetto conditions of Watts, the strained relationship between police and the African American community, and the hot weather … combined into a powder keg” on Wednesday, Aug. 11, explains

It began when Lee W. Minikus, a white highway patrol officer, pulled over Marquette Frye, a black man, on suspicion of drunken driving. As Frye failed sobriety tests, his mother arrived and scolded him. He became angry and began resisting arrest as 250-300 onlookers gathered.

Soon a rumor circulated among the crowd that police had assaulted Frye, his mother and maybe his pregnant girlfriend. Fighting broke out, and violence soon spread through Watts.

Widespread rioting and looting continued over the next six days. According to California’s official investigation into the riots, “In the ugliest interval, which lasted from Thursday through Saturday, perhaps as many as 10,000 Negroes took to the streets in marauding bands. They looted stores, set fires, beat up white passersby whom they hauled from stopped cars, many of which were turned upside down and burned, exchanged shots with law enforcement officers, and stoned and shot at firemen.”

The rioters expressed their frustration with the social conditions in Los Angeles and across the country. Reported Time, “Before picking up a rock and smashing a passing white man on the head, one Negro youth explained to two Negro newsmen: ‘This is just what the police wanted—always messin’ with niggers. We’ll show ’em. I’m ready to die if I have to.’ … As they attacked, many cried, ‘This is for Selma’ or ‘This is for Bogalusa.’”

By the time the riots had ended on Sunday, Aug. 15, 34 people had died, more than 1,000 were injured and more than 600 buildings were damaged or destroyed by fire and looting.

Opinion & Analysis: Legacy of the Watts Riots

Sources in this Story

  • PBS: Watts Riots
  • Frye, Marquette (1944–1986)
  • University of Southern California: Doheny Electronic Resources Center: Violence in the City: An End or a Beginning?
  • Time: Trigger of Hate
  • Los Angeles Times: Watts Riots, 40 Years Later
  • The Washington Post: Burned, Baby, Burned

The legacy of the Watts Riots remains disputed and controversial. “To many,” writes Valerie Reitman and Mitchell Landsberg in the Los Angeles Times, “the events … remain a riot, pure and simple—a social breakdown into mob rule and criminality. To others, they were a revolt, a rebellion, an uprising—a violent but justified leap into a future of black self-empowerment.”

“People keep calling it a riot, but we call it a revolt because it had a legitimate purpose,” said Tommy Jacquette, a friend of Frye, to the Times in 2005. “It was a response to police brutality and social exploitation of a community and of a people.”

The riots helped bring the conditions of the ghetto to light. The McCone Report, the state government’s official investigation into the riots, discussed the social conditions that led to the riots.

“In examining the sickness in the center of our city, what has depressed and stunned us most is the dull, devastating spiral of failure that awaits the average disadvantaged child in the urban core,” it said.

But John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, questions why the riots in Watts and other parts of the country came just as federal law was granting equal treatment to blacks. He concludes that the riots had a negative effect on the civil rights movement, which up until 1965 had centered on nonviolent protest.

“In teaching poor blacks that picturesque battle poses were an ‘authentic’ substitute for constructive intentions, the ‘Burn, Baby, Burn’ ethos ultimately did more harm than good to a people who had already been through more than enough,” he writes.

The Los Angeles Times interviewed nine people on the 40th anniversary of the riots to give their accounts and opinions. The interviewees include Minikus and Rena Price, Frye’s mother.

Historical Context: Race Riots of the 1960s

In the 1960s, racial violence became common in all parts of the country. According to the McCone Report, there were seven race riots in the U.S. in the summer of 1964, resulting in five deaths and 950 people injured.

Racial violence peaked in the summer of 1967, when 125 cities had race riots, according to PBS Thirteen. The two largest riots occured less than two weeks apart in July: Newark, N.J., had a six-day riot that left 26 dead and over 1,000 injured, and Detroit had a five-day riot that killed more than 40 people and injured hundreds.

Related: 1992 Rodney King Riots

The Watts Riots were the deadliest riots in the history of Los Angeles until they were eclipsed by the Los Angeles Riots of 1992. They began on April 29, 1992, after a group of L.A. police officers were acquitted for severely beating Rodney King, a black man. By the time the riots ended on May 3, 55 people were dead and 10,000 businesses had been destroyed by fire.

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