The Watts Riots were the largest and costliest urban rebellion of the American Civil Rights era.

Quick notes

  • The riots began when African American motorist Marquette Frye was pulled over on suspicion of driving while intoxicated

  • Tensions between police officers and the black community were already running high

  • They lasted for six full days and resulted in more than forty million dollars worth of property damage

On August 11, 1965, African-American motorist Marquette Frye was pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving by white California Highway Patrolman, Lee W. Minkus. As Frye was read his rights, a crowd of hundreds started to form. Tensions between onlookers and police soon erupted into a violent exchange.

The mayhem that followed Frye’s arrest immediately touched off dozens of riots centered in the Watts neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles. The unrest lasted for six days, resulting in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, and 4,000 arrests. The damages totaled over $40 million.

Life in Watts

Following World War II, over 500,000 African Americans migrated to West Coast cities in hopes of finding a better life. Tens of thousands of them, mostly from segregated Southern states, ended up in the South Central area of Los Angeles. They were looking for a home free of segregation and discrimination.

What they found was a neighborhood that was almost 100% black, cut off from the rest of the world. As the white people left the community, manufacturers followed them. There was nowhere to work, and the city failed to provide adequate public services. To top things off, there was a unanimous feeling that the police force was working against them.

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Marquette Frye

Marquette Frye was a Midwest transplant. His family moved to L.A. in 1957, when he was just 13 years old. By the time he was 16, Marquette was already having a difficult time and dropped out of high school. He had been arrested for gang involvement and couldn’t hold down a job.

In 1965, Marquette and his stepbrother were pulled over in L.A.’s notorious Watts neighborhood for suspicion of driving while intoxicated. Frye admitted to drinking, but things were going along smoothly until his mother arrived. Then, maybe worried about saving face, the young man panicked and began to resist arrest. It is said that the police knocked him down with a baton.

Tensions erupt

As Frye was arrested, crowds began to gather. Back-up police arrived to keep things under control, but that only aggravated the situation. Fights began to erupt between the crowd and officers, and as two motorcycle police attempted to leave, one was spat on. As officers pursued the assailant, the crowd closed in around them.

Fights began to erupt between the crowd and officers

By 7:45 p.m. — less than an hour after Frye was pulled over — full-on riots had broken out. The crowd was throwing rocks, bottles, bricks, and more at vehicles as they passed by, and white drivers were being pulled from cars and assaulted. The following morning, community leaders pled with rioters to stop the violence, but it was too late.

Crowds attacked firefighters

Overnight, the riots had escalated to unforeseen levels of violence. As mobs clashed with the police, other rioters set buildings and cars on fire and looted area stores. When firefighters tried to reach the burning buildings, the crowd attacked them and blocked the way.

Martin Luther King Jr. was quoted as saying that in Watts “[there] is a unanimous feeling that there has been police brutality”

After just three days, riots covered a 50 square-mile section of Los Angeles, and 14,000 National Guard troops had been dispatched to the city. As police raided vehicles and apartments, rioters threw Molotov cocktails and fired at them with rifles. Police chief William Parker derided them as “monkeys in a zoo.”

After the riots

The riots lasted for three more days, but they were not an isolated event. Between 1964 and 1965, dozens of riots took place across the United States in protest of systemic racism. Neighborhoods like Rochester and Harlem in NY and Philadelphia, PA, saw violent clashes between citizens and police.

In Watts, 34 people were killed — most of them black citizens. Many of them were deemed justifiable homicides. A commission was set up to study the causes of the riot and suggested several community-improvement initiatives to stabilize the neighborhood. There was little follow-up.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

In the 1960s, racial segregation was prominent in schools, and women were often turned down for jobs.

In 1960, Ruby Bridges would be one of the few black children who were integrated into all-white schools in the south following Brown vs. Board of Education (1954).

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

In the 1960s, racial segregation was prominent in schools, and women were often turned down for jobs.

In 1960, Ruby Bridges would be one of the few black children who were integrated into all-white schools in the south following Brown vs. Board of Education (1954).