Watts riots eerily echo racial tensions 50 years later

  • Demonstrators push against a police car after rioting erupted in a crowd of 1,500 in the Los Angeles area of Watts, Aug. 12, 1965. The disturbances were triggered by the arrest of a black person on charges of drunken driving. More than 100 officers were called into the area.
  • Armed police patrolling the streets of Los Angeles during the Watts race riots, August 11-15, 1965.
  • Policemen force a rioter into a police car during the second night in a row of rioting on Aug. 12, 1965 in Los Angeles, Calif.
  • Riots in the Watts section with youths carrying armloads of clothes running from looted stores, Los Angeles, Calif., August 1965.
  • Armed National Guardsmen march toward smoke on the horizon during the street fires of the Watts riots, Los Angeles, Calif., August 1965.
  • Members of the National Guard take aim during rioting in the Watts area of Los Angeles, during the Watts riots, August 1965.
  • A makeshift sign urging drivers to ‘Turn Left Or Get Shot’ during the race riots in the Watts area of Los Angeles, Calif., August 1965.
  • Armed police stand by as rioters lay face down in the street during the Watts race riots, Los Angeles, Calif., August 1965.
  • During the Watts Riots, two police officers aim from behind a parked car as fire and smoke from a burning building color the night sky, Los Angeles, Calif., August 1965.
  • Riot equipped policemen apprehend a man for his ethnic origins, during race riots in the predominantly black area of Watts, Los Angeles, August 11-15, 1965.
  • A shoe store in the Watts area of Los Angeles, Calif., collapses in flames as the city’s wave of violence moves into its fourth day, Aug. 14, 1965.
  • The lifeless body of a man lies on a sidewalk beside a wrecked car at a gas station in the Watts neighborhood during ongoing riots, Los Angeles, Calif, mid-August. 1965.
  • Police keep riots under control in the Watts area of Los Angeles, Calif., August 1965.
  • A convoy of trucks rolls into the Watts district loaded with National Guardsmen ordered to the area to quell the fourth consecutive day of riots on Aug. 14, 1965, in Los Angeles, Calif.
  • Workmen sweeping up debris left by the Los Angeles Watts riots on 103rd Street. 
  • With his .22 hunting rifle on his lap and a revolver in his belt, heavyweight boxer Amos Lincoln, aka Big Train, guards the family drug store during rioting in the Watts area of Los Angeles, August 1965.
  • A military jeep patrols the Watts area.
  • Tired National Guard sleep on the sidewalks of the Watts district after an uneasy calm settled. A window reflects still flickering flames that consumed a building across the street on Aug. 15, 1965, in Los Angeles, Calif.
  • Black smoke darkens the sky over southeast Los Angeles during the fourth of six days of rioting in the area on Aug. 16, 1965. Along with looting and violence, fires burned over a wide area. 
  • A blood-splattered man sitting beside an armed policeman, during the Watts riots, Los Angeles, Calif., August 11-15, 1965.
  • In the Watts neighborhood, firefighters battle a fire in the wake of ongoing riots, Los Angeles, Calif., mid-August 1965.
  • Silhouetted by the cool gush of a broken fire hydrant, a National Guardsman stands ready for further trouble in the strife-torn Watts district of Los Angeles on Aug. 16, 1965.
  • Two African-American men hold their hands up against the wall of a dry cleaners while being arrested by white state troopers during the Watts race riots, Los Angeles, Calif., on Aug. 16, 1965.
  • A.Z. Smith, a victim of the Los Angeles riots, checks the damage to his barber shop in the Watts area of Los Angeles, Aug. 17, 1965.
  • Amid the ruins of riots in Los Angeles, Tony’s shoe shine stand reopens for business on Aug. 17, 1965.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses a group of Watts district residents and tells them he is “here to support you because you supported me in the South,” in Los Angeles, Calif., on Aug. 18, 1965. Dr. King spoke only a few blocks away from the worst damage left in the wake of the week-long rampage during the Watts Riots of 1965.

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It all began with an incident that has become eerily familiar to modern Americans — a traffic stop that may have been routine, but many believed was racially motivated. 

When two white police officers confronted a black driver who was allegedly drunk on August 11, 1965, near Watts, a predominately African-American section of Los Angeles, they probably could have never imagined their actions would spark a chain of events that led to six days of rioting, more than $40 million dollars in property damage, nearly 4,000 arrests and, most importantly, the loss of 34 lives. 

Liberal white America — still patting itself on the back for the triumphant passage of the historic Voting Rights Act just days earlier — experienced a rude awakening when confronted with the searing intensity of the Watts riots. The anger and resentment boiling under the surface in many communities of color came spilling out onto the streets in the form of looting, violent resistance, and raging fires. The nation didn’t know what to make of the chaos at the time but, 50 years later, it’s become more apparent that Watts represented another breaking point for black Americans who had lived hundreds of years under relentless oppression.

The end of the ‘60s would come to be defined in part by uprisings in major cities, but Watts would leave an indelible mark. To this day, the city is still stigmatized because of the unforgettable images of anger and rebellion that were broadcast on television directly into Americans’ living rooms.

Today, the same grievances about racially biased police practices, housing discrimination and economic inequality serve as a prime motivator for activists expressing their frustration in impoverished communities today. The legacy of Watts is still alive on street corners in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore; and even New York City.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called Watts “the beginning of a stirring of those people in our society who have been passed by the progress of the past decade,” but even he could not have predicted that the fuse lit 50 years ago would still be burning in the hearts of men and women who feel unjustly maligned by the powers that be in their own backyard.

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