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Revisiting the 1965 Watts Rebellion: A Journey Through Photographs

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It started on a hot August day with a traffic stop, and quickly erupted into six days of civil unrest that devastated the community of Watts and awakened the nation. To commemorate the date that had such a tremendous impact on the city of Los Angeles, California State University, Dominguez Hills is hosting an exhibit of photos and memorabilia, as well as a series of talks and screenings, that illuminate what circumstances led to the Watts Rebellion of 1965, what positive changes occurred as a result of it, and what lingering inequities remain in the largely African American and now Latino communities of southeast and central Los Angeles.

Fifty years ago this week, Watts exploded with violence. The scenario sounds uncomfortably familiar in today's environment of racially fueled police abuse and racial tension. What sparked the uprising in 1965 was a physical altercation while a white policeman was placing African American motorist, Marquette Frye under arrest for drunk driving. The exact details change depending on who is telling the story: it started when the arresting officer verbally assaulted Marquette's mother, or when he punched a pregnant woman. But no matter the exact incident that ignited the uprising, the issues that lead to it were long seething, and built on a foundation of systemic inequities.

The root causes ran much deeper in 1965's Watts community. "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," assessed Martin Luther King when he visited Watts just days after the rebellion. The unrest was fueled by the ongoing local issue of housing discrimination, most clearly exhibited by the passing of Proposition 14, which nullified the Rumford Fair Housing Act and allowed property owners and landlords to refuse to rent or sell their properties to people of color. With huge divisions in society based on skin color, and the ballooning of poverty and discrimination, L.A. was rife for conflict.

This photo essay is the first of three installments that takes a reflective look at the 1965 Watts Rebellion as well as the activism and re-energized community that followed the uprising to current day.

Photographs courtesy of Laura Vena and California State University Dominguez Hills Archives, "Watts Then and Now".

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Watts went up in flames and smoke with the fury of its residents that were ignited to action by the police altercation between LAPD and Marquette Frye I Photo courtesy of the California State University, Dominguez Hills archives -- Watts Then and Now exhibit.
Police and community relations came under scrutiny during and after the riots, particularly by Lt. Governor Glen Anderson. I Photo courtesy of the California State University, Dominguez Hills archives -- Watts Then and Now exhibit.
Police and community relations came under scrutiny during and after the riots, particularly by Lt. Governor Glen Anderson. I Photo courtesy of the California State University, Dominguez Hills archives -- Watts Then and Now exhibit.
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Hundreds of local businesses became looting sites, during the course of 6 days, bringing to on-going question the value of violent uprising that continue to manifest today. I Photo courtesy of the California State University, Dominguez Hills archives -- Watts Then and Now exhibit.
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The Watts Rebellion has also most commonly referred to as riots, yet according to CSUDH archivist, Gregory Williams, referring to the upheaval as a rebellion expands the meanings of such events to take participant's agency and cause into account. I Photo courtesy of the California State University, Dominguez Hills archives -- Watts Then and Now exhibit.
The arrival of the National Guard days after the 1965 Watts Uprising I Photo courtesy of the California State University, Dominguez Hills archives -- Watts Then and Now exhibit.
The arrival of the National Guard days after the 1965 Watts Uprising I Photo courtesy of the California State University, Dominguez Hills archives -- Watts Then and Now exhibit.
Local Watts's supermarket soon after the 1965 Watts Uprising I Photo courtesy of the California State University, Dominguez Hills archives -- Watts Then and Now exhibit.
Local Watts's supermarket soon after the 1965 Watts Uprising I Photo courtesy of the California State University, Dominguez Hills archives -- Watts Then and Now exhibit.
Interior view of the Los Angeles County Library Willowbrook Branch soon after the 1965 Watts Uprising I Photo courtesy of the California State University, Dominguez Hills archives -- Watts Then and Now exhibit.
Interior view of the Los Angeles County Library Willowbrook Branch soon after the 1965 Watts Uprising I Photo courtesy of the California State University, Dominguez Hills archives -- Watts Then and Now exhibit.

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