“Burn, Baby, Burn!”: Watts Uprising In Retrospect

Watts- 1965

Watts- 1965

It was on this day, in 1965, that the Watts Rebellion, or “Watts riots,” as they’ve been termed by historical media accounts began, in what was to be a week-long act of rebellion against government-instituted racial discrimination in the state of California that left 34 people dead, mostly at the hands of the National Guard and LAPD, as well as 1, 032 injuries, 3, 348 arrests, and over $40 million in property damage.

What started out as a traffic stop for suspected drunken driving, California highway patrolmen pulled over a 1955 Buick driven by 21 year old Marquette Frye, who had been traveling with his brother, Ronald, when an altercation ensued that ended with the two brothers and their mother, Rena, thrown into the back of a squad car, setting off the six-day uprising which left the frustrated city of Watts ablaze.

The Watts uprising began a little over a year after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been signed by President Lyndon Johnson, and mere months after President Johnson gave an historical speech at Howard University(“To Fulfill These Rights”), but Right wing conservatives in the state of California were already finding it difficult(read unacceptable)to abide by any laws and regulations that made housing, employment, education, healthcare, better food and services more readily available to the black community. To white businessmen and sympathetic politicians, welfare aid and government intervention to address the failures of the free market to provide these basic necessities of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness(dignity and opportunity) in the black community were addressed with the ballot initiative, Prop 14, in 1964, as a direct response to the Civil Rights movement.

Prop 14 of 1964, sponsored by the California Real Estate Association, essentially nullified the Rumford Fair Housing Act of 1963– an act that was drafted by William Byron Rumford, the state’s first black legislator from Northern California, which sought to begin to put an end to racial discrimination by property owners and landlords who refused to sell or rent to “colored people.”

Prop 14 was soon endorsed by the John Birch Society and the California Republican Assembly and read as follows:

Neither the State nor any subdivision or agency thereof shall deny, limit or abridge, directly or indirectly, the right of any person, who is willing or desires to sell, lease or rent any part or all of his real property, to decline to sell, lease or rent such property to such person or persons as he, in his absolute discretion, chooses.

It was later overturned by the California Supreme Court in 1966, but Proposition 14 is seen as the historical catalyst for the Watts rebellion, and the insidious motives of Prop 14 are still ingrained into the culture war we’re still witnessing today.

In 1966, a year after Watts, Ronald Reagan won the California governorship by giving telegenic public addresses about “freedom” and the importance of States’ rights and keeping ‘big government’ out of their business practices, pretty much ridiculing any federal effort to address the desperate needs of minority communities. Offering up the abolishment of “free government handouts” with fake appeals to racial and economic equality, railing against “activist judges,” and demanding more control and freedom for those private sector solutions to take hold, Ronald Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” legacy is one rooted in the historical institutional discrimination that set Watts on fire back in 1965.

Betty Pleasant, as student at Fremont High School at the time Watts began to boil, also worked as a part-time youth editor of the L.A. Sentinel, which was the major paper for the black community at the time, recounted her experience covering the story:

At 103rd Street, we came upon a real bad situation involving Nat Diamond’s furniture store, which was being attacked. A guy walked out with a sofa on his shoulder. They ultimately burned it, with screams of “Burn, Baby, Burn!” Then they progressed east on 103rd Street and burned everything in their wake.

After the furniture store, Betty Pleasant said the mob moved on to a department store, where she was offered a blouse by a guy just before they through a Molotov cocktail through the window, and refused it, saying,

They moved to the big supermarket on 103rd street that was notorious for selling awful food. Several months before, I covered a demonstration there where people were trying to get them to sell better meat, better baked goods, better produce. They burned it to a fare-thee-well. Burned it down. I don’t think they even bothered to loot that sucker.

What was happening in the run-up to Watts was happening in places all across the country, where locally white-owned businesses were gouging customers, selling them cheap goods and disgusting food, exacerbated by the racism in keeping good paying jobs and opportunity out of the hands of those in need. The continued degradation of the black community along these lines are still seen today.

During the 1950′s, in the run-up to Watts, white gangs would attack Blacks and Hispanics who dared venture out into their surrounding communities. Crosses were burned on lawns, houses were bombed, and this led to “black mutual protection clubs,” which gave rise to the street gangs that well-to-do people are exploiting today for all manner of fear and anxiety, “White Flight” being the chief among them.

Rena Price, mother of Marquette Frye, died two months ago at age 97. When a jury found her guilty of interfering with a police officer on behalf of her son, the judge fined her $250 and made her pay in monthly installments of $10.

“I have a reason for this,” the judge said. “On the first of every month when you have to pay $10, you will be reminded of this case.”

She never got her Buick back.

Martin Luther King Jr., who abhorred violent resolution, once said, “But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.”

48 years after Watts, is anyone listening?

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  • missliberties

    Wow! Great piece Mr. Brink.

  • blackdaug

    I am beginning to wonder if one of the many consequences of internet mass communication, and social media in general, is that it is has began to function as a de facto population pacification mechanism. A new opiate for the masses.
    Think of it, the last really full scale mass public demonstrations or riots we have seen (the Rodney King verdict for instance) all occurred right before internet access became really ubiquitous.
    Sure , there were demonstrations against the Iraq war, but nothing on the scale such a blatant abuse of power should have elicited.
    When you look at the various horrors state governments are visiting on citizens today, voter disenfranchisement, choice restrictions, the horrendous Trayvon decision ect….
    These are all things that in the past would have incited full scale rioting, but now seem to only draw a few headlines, and scattered small demonstrations around the country.
    I am not saying riots are good thing, but history seems to indicate that mass, boots on the street demonstration, is the only real thing politicians in this country respect…outside of mass cash flow.
    Of course, the second amendment crowd, can always be counted on to sling guns around their shoulders and show up in places they have no business being…..but it seems that more and more, when some really egregious violation of our rights occurs (not some trumped up imaginary grievance of the stupid privileged white set with time on their hands) people seem to be content to voice their displeasure with a few angry Tweets ….or blog comment rant.

    • http://www.politicalruminations.com/ nicole

      To me, it seems to have begun with the 2000 election when we didn’t murmur nary a sound when Bush was announced as the winner.

      Prior to Gore’s capitulation, I kept thinking that we would march on Washington, and I had myself and my son packed up, ready to jump in the car and go. I was shocked when nothing happened.

  • http://www.politicalruminations.com/ nicole

    Fantastic piece, Brink!

    >>>>Martin Luther King Jr., who abhorred violent resolution, once said, “But in the
    final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.”

    He was so right.

  • muselet

    I was a kid when the Watts Riots/Rebellion happened, a white kid living in a quiet, comfortable, mostly-white, middle-class community the better part of an hour’s drive from what was then called South-Central LA. I wasn’t in the habit of reading the newspaper—except the comics, of course—especially not during summer and didn’t watch the news on TV.

    I vaguely remember being aware that something was happening in Watts, but in much the same way I was aware that a place called “Tibet” existed. My parents didn’t talk about it, at least not in front of me, so I have no idea if they were concerned that the unrest would spread or even if they had the slightest clue what was actually going on. With radio and television and two daily newspapers in the house, I’m sure they knew what. I’m equally sure they had no idea why.

    Reading about events now, I’m only surprised it took as long as it did for smoldering resentment to explode into anger.

    –alopecia

    • blackdaug

      I remembered it too, but it was mixed in with all the other memories of the nightly news back then:
      Marches on the White House and the Pentagon (including self immolations..amish and buddhist), bloody war postings from Viet Nam, mass murders somewhere….and what seemed like weekly assassinations.
      The average nightly newscast of today, is a fluffy trip to Disneyland, compared with the half hour horror casts of the 60′s and 70′s…..

      • muselet

        I started actively following the news a few years later, roughly the time when Robert Kennedy was murdered. Looking back on the stories that were reported, I wonder how it is I didn’t either go mad or give up hope.

        The network news divisions then were reasonably well-funded and there was a firewall between management and the news division—a somewhat porous one, at times, but it was there—so the nightly news was pretty unflinching. The network news and the newspapers were run with the public interest in mind: they covered news that an informed citizenry needed.

        Gosh, I wonder if that model could be made to work today.

        –alopecia