Watts Commemoration Header


The Watts Rebellion began on August 11, 1965, when a white California highway patrol officer pulled over black Watts resident Marquette Frye and his brother on suspicion of drunk driving. The Los Angeles Police Department was called for backup as a crowd gathered to watch. Because the incident was close to the Fryes’ home, the boys’ mother arrived on the scene—a struggle ensued, which led to the arrest of all three Frye family members by LAPD officers.

Angered by the family’s arrests, Watts residents began to protest as the police cars drove away. The escalated tension from the growing crowd sparked rioting, which lasted five days and involved 10-30,000 people. Many of those involved in the uprising set fires and looted local stores. Others turned cars over and battled the police.

The rebellion ended by August 17, with 14,000 National Guard troops arriving to patrol the streets. All told, the Watts Rebellion resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 injured, nearly 4,000 arrests, and more than $40 million in property damage.

California Governor Pat Brown named John McCone to head a commission to study and investigate the “riots.” The commission report concluded that the unrest was a result of the Watts community’s longstanding grievances and discontent with unemployment, poor housing, and inadequate schools.

Despite the findings of the governor’s commission, local, state, and federal programs implemented following the rebellion failed to significantly improve the social and economic conditions of African Americans living in Watts and surrounding impoverished Los Angeles communities over the long term. In the ensuing decades, many of the issues of poverty and discrimination continued to plague the community, which today has shifted demographically from predominantly African American to mostly Latino.

The Watts Rebellion is considered by many to have been one of the key turning points in the African American Civil Rights movement, and has served to shape scholarly and public understanding of race rebellions and the development of race relations in the United States.

Civil Rights Digital Library