Revisiting the 1965 Watts Rebellion: Relics of Fire

bookcovers, by knoonan

In the 50 years since the Watts Rebellion and given recent social unrest foddered by racial and socio-economic disparities, what has changed in our local and national communities?

Watts, as do other Black and Latino communities, continues to experience many of the same hardships of decades ago. Job opportunities continue to be scarce, as is access to affordable housing. And there are other scars that run deep throughout this community that continue to cause suffering. A continued lack of infrastructure and services remains in this community and those surrounding it.

At the same time, the Watts remains vital and buoyant with deeply-rooted grassroots activism and homegrown cultural and economic regeneration.

In remembering the Watts Rebellion in its 50th anniversary, California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) has curated an exhibit of photos and memorabilia that juxtapose the environment in Watts in 1965 with that of 2015. "Watts Then and Now", displays a carefully curated selection of vintage photos and other collected items from the school's archives and Special Collections, picked and assembled by curator, Gregory Williams.

Story continues below

Many of the unique objects on display are part of the Glen Anderson archive, a set of historic documents of former Lt. Governor Glen Anderson, which is part of CSUDH's Special Collections. The archival objects offer insightful glimpses into the Rebellion's most uncertain, turbulent moments as acting Governor Anderson attempted to keep peace and prevent greater catastrophe while negotiating relations between community members and authorities. In addition, the archive includes the government-generated McCone report, important for its role in assessing the aftermath of the Rebellion and for shaping public perception of the uprising as riots. "Watts Then and Now" places documents from multiple sources into dialogue with each other, offering varying perspectives on the events and its outcomes in the last 50 years, which also includes cultural resurgence rooted in activism.

This photo essay is the second 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.

See the first photo installment for an on-the-street look of the uprising.

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

Discontent mounted quickly following the forceful arrest of Marquette Frye (left) and his brother Ronald by an LAPD officer.'There were a lot of incidents leading up to this uprising of black discontent. Black people were tired of the contradictions, the inequalities, the mounting violations, police brutality, unemployment, lack of opportunity, lack of respect, and the amount of sacrifices made as a consequence of white domination.'--Jayne Cortez (from Watts: Art and Social Change in Los Angeles, 1965-2002 Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University January 23-March 30, 2003)
Lt. Governor Glen Anderson called in the National Guard four days into the unrest and was criticized for acting too late. 'Riot is the language of the unheard... [America] has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.' --Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Since 1966, the Watts Summer Festival was created by antipoverty organizers and black nationalists to celebrate culture and heritage.<br />
Since 1966, the Watts Summer Festival was created by antipoverty organizers and black nationalists to celebrate culture and heritage.
From 1965-1973, screenwriter Budd Schulberg started the Watts Writers Workshop in the wake of the Watts Rebellion. At first, no one came. The community members wondered about the agenda of this white man when they had continually experienced blatant, pervasive racism. Some in the community wanted to run him out of the neighborhood. But then one person took a chance. And then another. Eventually, the workshop became successful and received attention, winning funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and National Endowment of the Arts. Some of the well-known writers who emerged from the workshop were Quincy Troupe, Johnie Scott, Eric Priestley, Ojenke, Herbert Simmons, and Wanda Coleman, as well as the poetry group, Watts Prophets. The ripple effects of the workshop and the self-expression and artistry nourished by it helped build a foundation for the arts in Watts that still resonates today.
Governor Pat Brown visits Watts in the rebellion's aftermath, while local poets, intellectuals and activists immediately got to work, reflecting on its causes and envisioning new futures in a flurry of cultural production. 'So it was time to recognize the need for change, a time to protest conditions, a time to reflect and cancel all conservative ideas, a time to drop the ball and chain, a time to go back to the root and use the black freedom struggle as a foundation for art, a time to find another way of life. Many artists drew energy from the rebellion and produced works exploring the aftermath, the confrontations, the wounds, and the revolutionary ideas.--Jayne Cortez (from Watts: Art and Social Change in Los Angeles, 1965-2002 Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University January 23-March 30, 2003)
The McCone Report, commissioned by Governor Pat Brown, was entitled Violence in the City: An End or a Beginning?. It identified causes for the 'riots' and issued numerous recommendations, including increased educational resources in the Watts community. However, the report was critiqued for being short-sighted, if not blind to the nature of the unrest. 'What the McCone Commission fails to understand is that from the standpoint of the lower-class Negroes living in Watts, the riots . . . were not riots at all but a revolution.'--Budd Schulberg, From the Ashes: Voices from the Dust

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading