Remembering Watts: Listeners reflect on the 50th anniversary

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Man sweeps broken glass in front of Chesley Jewelry store, in Watts. Photo Courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library

Fifty years ago, Watts erupted. A white traffic officer stopped a black driver named Marquette Frye, suspecting him of drunk driving. The stop led to an altercation. A crowd gathered and tensions that had been simmering for many years boiled up to the surface, sparking six days of unrest. More than 1000 people were injured, 34 were killed, many buildings were burned to the ground, and businesses were looted. The Watts Riots or Watts Rebellion, as it’s also called, has had a lasting effect on Los Angeles. We asked listeners to share their memories (some have been edited for length and clarity).

Share your memories here.

Several buildings on fire at the same time, during the rioting in the Watts area. Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library
Several buildings on fire at the same time, during the rioting in the Watts area. Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library

I was 13 years old when the Watts Riots erupted and was with my mother at her summer teaching job — in Watts. The principal of the school came running into the classroom and insisted that we leave immediately because violence had broken out on the streets in the neighborhood (we are caucasian). My mother refused to leave. She was there to help underprivileged kids and didn’t want to leave because of the color of our skin. I was scared and the principal literally had to gently push my mother out the door suggesting we don’t drive on main streets. We arrived home and turned on the TV to see what was happening a few blocks from where we had been. We both sat there and cried. Probably because of my mother, I have always been sympathetic to the cause of equal treatment and equal rights for all people. — Deborah Clark

My father was an LAPD metro first squad deployed. I was only 10 at the time, it was around my birthday. He gave me a transistor radio and we could listen to the police broadcast. I remember him coming home very late, I hadn’t seen him in days. He had blood all over him. I asked him if he was bleeding, He said “no, it’s not my blood, its ok go back to bed. Later when asked he told me an African American pharmacy owner bandaged him, and they held off looters. — Allen Miller

My mother was pregnant with me during the riots. At the time my family was living in nearby Compton, and my mom literally thought the world was ending. She feared the violence would spread just a few miles over into our neighborhood. Our city at that time was 50 percent black and 50 percent white and my mom said it was peaceful. However the nearby situation in Watts resulted in “white flight,” and by the time we moved in 1973 we only had one white neighbor. My mom said she remembers seeing evidence of extreme looting, with people tying furniture and electronics to the roofs of their cars as they sped through our neighborhood with car lights off. — Kimberley McCullough-Sieloff

I was 13 years old, living with my family in an apartment during the construction of our new Pacific Palisades home. I was emotionally detached from the black-and-white images of Watts Riots shown on TV until my mother, a native Angeleno who grew up in the Watts area during the 1920s and 1930s, learned that her father was trapped inside the old family home while people were running up and down the streets carrying looted merchandise. I knew that house off of Vermont – the house my mother grew up in and the house I remember as a child with fond memories. I sensed ugliness knowing my mother and aunts were frantic, my grandfather was alone and on a street filled with crazed people. And in an instant those memories became forever, eventually joined by the LA riots in the ’90s, Northridge earthquake and 9-11.  — Deborah Montano

CHP officers with shotguns get ready to man the lines at 112th Street and Avalon Boulevard, during the rioting in the Watts area. Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library
CHP officers with shotguns get ready to man the lines at 112th Street and Avalon Boulevard, during the rioting in the Watts area. Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library

In 1965 I was married to an African American. We were in Hollywood at a show the night the riots broke out and our baby daughter was at the sitter’s in South Central. Given the tension at the time, we drove to the sitters house and, on the way, were stopped by the police and asked our business. When we stated it he let us in and remarked that he hoped we got back out as if there was the possibility we would not. We picked up our daughter and drove to stay with a friend in Camarillo. I will never forget the line of National Guard vehicles coming down the freeway as we left town. Very reminiscent of a war zone. — Melanie Ley

At the time I was serving out my two-year draft sentence in Alexandria, Virginia. In my unit I was the only one out of 82 soldiers who was from Southern California. No one there had ever heard of Watts. When we watched the scary riot footage on TV in the day room, the overall consensus (disregarding the burning) was that Watts looked like a “real nice place with white picket fences and orange trees in some front yards.” They were comparing their own experience of what East Coast “slums” looked like (think Bronx). –Mark Leysen

I was 15, it was on TV. My parents believed it was the result of frustration and lack of jobs. Most of my friends’ parents thought the riots were not justified and it was the black people that didn’t want to improve their lot. They felt the black community was corrupt and lazy. I think the white folk in the San Fernando Valley were angry and confused. –Ronald Wilkinson

Man sweeps broken glass in front of Chesley Jewelry store, in Watts. Photo Courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library

My memory of the Watts Riots begins the year before, in 1964. I was a student at UCLA attending the summer session. 1964 was a US election year and a big year nationally for the civil rights movement, especially in the South. Students were busing to Mississippi from up North. I couldn’t join that movement, but I could do something closer to home. Working with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and a registrar of voters, I was a “bird-dog” going door-to-door in Watts, finding people who needed to register to vote in the coming election: Goldwater vs. LBJ. I did this for a few weeks after summer school ended. I felt good about doing it: I was a participant and contributing to a just cause. I remember thinking that the houses I visited in Watts were not so different from my own Westside home. People there put antimacassars on their chairs and doilies on the tables, just like my grandmother did at home. The riots in the summer of 1965 were a shock. People at work were very nervous. Security was watching the smoke on the horizon, planning what to do if the turmoil came closer. It was obvious then that our work the previous summer to increase participation in the election and the American system wasn’t enough. It had not made any difference in the lives of the people in Watts. Maybe it even had made things worse? As recent as 1992 a boiling-point was reached and riots reoccurred. It could happen again, given the right circumstances. — Alison Wentworth

 More Watts anniversary coverage here.