On August 11, 1965—47 years ago today—Los Angeles dissolved into what is perhaps the most famous display of racial hatred and violence in America’s history.
Only 13 months earlier, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had greatly expanded the rights and protections of all Americans, regardless of race or gender. Tensions remained high, though, as segregationists sought ways around this law (and other similar legislation). In California, Proposition 14 nullified the state’s 1963 fair housing law, amending the state constitution to allow individuals to decline to sell, lease, or rent property pursuant to their preferences.
On August 11, a police officer arrested Marquette Frye for drunk driving. While the officer was questioning him, Frye’s brother Ronald (who had been in the car at the time) led his mother to the scene. Alarmed by her son’s forcible arrest, Mrs. Rena Frye put up a fight, tearing one officer’s shirt. Both the mother and the two sons were arrested—and police hit them with their batons.
A growing (and angry) crowd of hundreds of onlookers dissolved into violence after the police officers left, stoning cars, beating people, and looting stores.
The National Guard was called in and a curfew was ordered, but the chaos lasted several days, finally ending on August 17—for the most part. (The next night, police entered a Nation of Islam mosque and fired extensively into the building, causing many injuries.)
By the time the violence was quelled, at least 34 people lay dead, 1000 had been wounded, and more than 600 buildings had been damaged or destroyed through looting and arson.
When peace was finally restored, California Governor Pat Brown created a commission to study the riots; the McCone Commission’s report ultimately stated that the riots had been caused by deep and engrained social problems: poverty, inequality, racial discrimination, and the passage of Proposition 14.
Despite this report, little was done to remedy the poor conditions under which Los Angeles’ African American residents lived. The riot lives on today in American history as a horrifying reminder of the violence such treatment can lead to. It was neither the first nor the last race riot in Los Angeles—a fact which illustrates all too well that the path to equality and justice is long.
To learn more, and to view news footage, check out this page from PBS. The Civil Rights Digital Library includes a synopsis and archival material.
To read the summary from Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, click here.
For a comprehensive study of the riot and its aftermath, check out Gerald Horne’s Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s (Da Capo Press, 1997).
To view the August 12, 1965, article in the New York Times, click here.
The August 27, 1965 edition of LIFE Magazine focused heavily on the Watts Riots.
To read the McCone Commission’s report, click here.
In this 2005 Los Angeles Times article, reporters Valerie Reitman and Mitchell Landsberg interview nine survivors.
To learn more about urban race riots, check out Janet Abu-Lughod’s Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles (Oxford University Press, 2012). Readers will also be interested in John Charles Boger and Judith Welch Wegner’s edited collection, Race, Poverty, and American Cities (UNC Press 1996).
This was not the first time Los Angeles had faced rioting, nor would it be the last. The 1943 zoot suit riots involved violence by white sailors and Marines against Latino youths. And in 1992, 58 individuals were killed after the controversial beating of Rodney King sparked a week-long riot.
To learn more about the 1943 riot, check out Eduardo Obregon Pagan’s Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A. (UNC Press, 2003). Rodney King, in conjunction with Lawrence Spagnola, recently published a memoir about the 1992 riot: The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption.