Watts was one of the first black neighborhoods in Los Angeles. It contains three of the largest housing projects west of the Mississippi—Nickerson Gardens, Jordan Downs, and Imperial Courts—that were originally built to house war workers and veterans, but by the rebellion of 1965 had become almost exclusively inhabited by blacks, mainly from the South. Even the poorest of the poor experienced gains in their standard of living during the 1950s and 60s, as median family incomes increased while poverty and unemployment rates declined. Nevertheless, the dreams of black migrants to Los Angeles for freedom and opportunity were frustrated more often than they were fulfilled, and their gains were outpaced by the suburban whites surrounding them, whose lifestyles  personified the image of the American Dream.

The urban landscape of Watts was quite unlike Harlem or other Northeastern ghettos—like the rest of Los Angeles, it had wide streets lined with palm trees, as well as a good supply of single-family homes built only a few decades before. But by 1965, Watts was rapidly declining for lack of adequate services, decent schools, or public space. There was increasing gang activity as the unemployment rate among men hovered around 30 percent, and was even worse for young men. There was no supermarket in Watts, and the nearest hospital was 12 miles away.

But the most oppressive and frequently lethal source of violence in Watts was certainly the Los Angeles Police Department. The LAPD escalated their tactics of repression and control in the inner city after William Parker became Chief of Police in 1951, and as the stream of Southern blacks migrating to Los Angeles increased. Under Chief Parker, the LAPD became less corrupt, but also more belligerent and violent in its policing of the ghetto. Since the 1920s, Central Avenue had been the main artery of nightclubs for performances by black musicians and entertainers, who attracted increasingly interracial audiences.  Whereas the LAPD had previously shaken down the Central Avenue clubs for money, under Chief Parker they began to raid and close them, explicitly citing the alleged dangers of race mixing.  Next, the LAPD set its sights on the street gangs of black and Latino youth who had formed around Los Angeles area high schools, in large part as a response to the violent gangs of white youth who surrounded them, the largest of which was the “Spook Hunters.” Anticipating the War on Drugs in the decades to come, Chief Parker cited the illegal trade in marijuana and heroin to justify his police force’s assault on black youth. Parker fostered a wartime environment by regularly exploiting the public’s racialized fears of crime, drugs, and gangs, securing power and public support by raising the specter of black youth against anyone who criticized or tried to set limits on his expanding police force.

A perceived act of police brutality during a drunk driving arrest lit the first spark in Watts on August 11, 1965. In the late afternoon on one of the hottest days of the summer,  a growing crowd of hundreds gathered at the intersection of Avalon Blvd. and 116th St. to watch the arrest, and a physical altercation began to escalate between police and some members of the crowd.  After the police left the scene, the angry crowd began its rampage, and the destruction and disorder would continue for almost a week. In the end,  nearly 4,000 people were arrested, more than 1,000 sustained injuries, and 34 were killed.  Nearly 1,000 buildings were destroyed,  damaged, looted or burned within an area of 46.5 square miles that extended far beyond Watts, with total property  damage estimated at $40 million.  A phalanx of 14,000 National Guardsmen was required to finally suppress the uprising on its sixth day.  The LAPD, politicians, and the media called it a riot; for participants and their sympathizers, it was a rebellion. The acts of aggression and annihilation were certainly fueled by a shared sense of anger, but there was also a festive character to the looting, burning, and destruction—the chant “burn, baby, burn” originated in these days and nights. People who had been left out of the good life that surrounded them got their revenge on white-owned property and simply took the things they needed or wanted. As the French Situationist Guy Debord wrote about the events in Watts, “People who destroy commodities show their human superiority to commodities.”

Watts proved to be a watershed moment in the fight for racial justice and equality during the 1960s. The unrest revealed the limits of liberalism and the struggle for rights, exposing the forms of socioeconomic deprivation and state control which liberal notions of equality could not remedy.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed by Lyndon Johnson just  before the Watts rebellion began, had been the culmination of ten years of collective struggle to force the federal government to dismantle Jim Crow segregation in the South. Watts confronted the movement with more systemic forces of oppression in the urban ghettos outside the South, social issues which could not be changed by voting or civil rights. The destructive nature of the rebellion also revealed the growing frustration, especially among the young,  with the Civil Rights Movement’s tactics of non-violent civil disobedience, as the pleas for peace and order from Martin Luther King and other black leaders went unheeded.   Insurrections had erupted during the previous summer in Harlem, as well as the cities of Philadelphia and Rochester, but none were on the scale of Watts. Indeed, an era of urban unrest had only just begun—between 1964 and 1972, there were uprisings in 300 American cities, involving nearly half a million black people, that resulted in 60,000 arrests, 10,000 injuries, and 250 deaths.

Watts was also a turning point for black culture.  The rebellion had a radicalizing effect on young people in particular. As they would do again in 1992, the  gangs set aside their hostilities, uniting in opposition to the police and the National Guard. For many black youths, there was a direct path from the street gangs to political radicalism, sometimes with a prison stint in between: for example, the founder of the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party, Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter,  and another leading figure, John Huggins, had been members of the Slausons gang in their teens. The Watts rebellion accelerated  white flight from South Central, thus lessening the need for defense against neighboring white gangs.  Ideologies based on cultural nationalism or revolutionary Marxism began to develop among radicalized black youth, which later escalated, with help from the FBI, into a violent antagonism between the Black Panthers and the black nationalist Us organization, culminating in the murders of Carter and Huggins on the UCLA campus in 1969.

Watts became a symbolic center in an emerging black culture after 1965, a sort of West Coast counterpart to Harlem. Just as it exposed the limits of liberalism and non-violence, the aftermath of the Watts rebellion was a break with the cultural assimilation that characterized the early 1960s. The assassination of Malcolm X and the Watts rebellion sparked the Black Arts movement that flourished in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities, beginning in 1965. The Watts Summer Festival, where African culture and history were taught and celebrated in a festive setting, became an annual event the following year; August 11, the first night of the rebellion, was thereafter commemorated as Uhuru (Freedom) Day. The rebellion served as inspiration for the Watts Writers Workshop, which brought attention to the poetry of Quincy Troupe and many other black writers. The Writers Workshop also facilitated the formation of the Watts Prophets, a group of spoken word performers whose rhyming style, like the Last Poets from Harlem, would provide an important link between the Black Arts movement and rap music. Another important musical force was the Pan-Afrikan People’s Arkestra, a large ensemble jazz band led by Horace Tapscott that was committed to the preservation and performance of  African music, a sort of West Coast version of the Sun Ra Arkestra, but without the futurism. After 1965, there was a new appetite for African and black cultural traditions and forms of self-expression, encompassing the visual arts, film, sculpture, poetry and prose, theater, and music.