Commemoration Statement

Watts Commemoration Header

As our campus embarks on a yearlong commemoration of the Watts Rebellion of August 1965, it is clear that we must take a position that views the loss of life, arrests, and damages as unfortunate while simultaneously recognizing the humanity and dignity of the residents of Watts and the Greater Los Angeles area. The official language of former CIA Director John McCone’s report to Governor Edmund G. Brown, titled “Violence in the City—An End or a Beginning?” used “riot” to describe the events of August 11-17. It is common for “riot,” “melee,” or “disturbances of the peace” to be the language of city, state, and federal agencies. Such labeling communicates that the activities were unmotivated, apolitical temper tantrums. The use of “riot” and other such terms supports the McCone Commission Report’s implications that the “riots” were the “rioters’” fault. It assumes that peace, order, and harmony existed before the events and “unruly” people “disturbed the peace.” California State University, Dominguez Hills has selected to term the events differently.

Many grassroots organizations in the late ’60s began using “revolt” to describe the August ’65 events. Presently, “uprising” and, more commonly, “rebellion” replace the earlier labels. The new language recognizes, respects, and reveres those who refused to accept their marginalized, silenced, and invisible condition. When the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his cohorts visited Los Angeles days after, he recalled: 

“There was joy among the rioters of Watts, not shame. They were completely oblivious to the destruction of property in their wake. They were destroying a physical and emotional jail; they had asserted themselves against a system which was quietly crushing them into oblivion and now they were ‘somebody.’ As one young man put it, ‘We know that a riot is not the answer, but we’ve been down here suffering for a long time and nobody cared. Now at least they know we’re here. A riot may not be the way, but it is a way.’”

In our commemoration of the Watts Rebellion of 1965, it is important that we explore the conditions giving rise to the rebellion such as high unemployment, poor housing, lack of quality education, and policing, to name a few. CSUDH recognizes, however, that an overemphasis on the discriminatory, exploitative, and prejudicial conditions Black residents of Watts and the Greater Los Angeles area experienced unintentionally reproduces a narrative of victimization. Of equal importance and inclusion in our commemoration are praise for the agency and creativity of affected communities during and after the rebellion. We recognize and commend grassroots organizations, community churches, and the arts communities as they recreated, reimagined, and reconstructed Los Angeles. Included in the rebuilding are the creation of at least three important institutions: Martin Luther King Hospital, Southwest Community College, and CSUDH.

In our commemoration, we take note of the oppressive conditions giving rise to the Watts Rebellion, as well as the agency and resistance of the largely Black communities. In addition, we do not victimize the residents of our commemoration with misguided and misleading language such as “riot;” rather we pay tribute to those with courage to “speak truth to power.” Our commemoration also acknowledges the continuities of conditions as well as shifting demographics in Los Angeles over the past 50 years. CSUDH commemorates the Watts Rebellion of 1965, taking stock of where our communities have been, and where we still must go. We commemorate to envision!    

Local History as Pedagogy: Watts Rebellion
Mr. M. Keith Claybrook, Jr., full-time lecturer, Department of Africana Studies
Ms. Brenda Riddick, director, Mervyn Dymally African American Political and Economic Institute
Dr. Keisha Paxton, professor of psychology
Dr. Jennifer Sumner, assistant professor of public administration