(Created by Khadijah Jackson, History 135, August 2004)
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Why was there such a delay in dispersing the National Guard to handle the angry crowds of the Watts Riots?
1965 was year filled with both victories and defeats for the Civil Rights Movement. Although blacks received voting rights with the passing of the Voting Rights Act, several negative incidents occurred that affected the black community - Black Nationalist Leader Malcolm X was killed and the Selma to Montgomery March proved to be full of violence instead of a peaceful demonstration. The six long days of a South Central Los Angeles community’s uprising in August were yet another violent sequence of events that occurred that year. That uprising would later be known as the Watts Riots.
For the most part, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 greatly improved race relations in most states, but there were a few exceptions. California made progress in racial equality by passing the Rumford Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in the rental or sale of housing. The Act was a victory for those of poor black communities, such as those in the South Central Los Angeles section of Watts, but the California Housing Association did not share the same positive view. Housing officials did not wish to enforce the provisions of the Act and therefore proposed Proposition 14, which repealed the Rumford Act. The citizens of Watts felt that Proposition 14 would adversely affect them and that the government betrayed them. They reacted with outrage and such outrage contributed to the air of violence in the Riots.
The event that sparked the Watts Riots began when a 22-year old black motorist, Marquette Frye, and his 24-year old brother Robert Frye, were traveling along a Los Angeles street two blocks from their residence. Suspected of drunk driving, they were stopped by a white California Highway Motorcycle Patrolman, Lee Minikus. The younger Frye, who was driving, failed field sobriety tests and was subsequently placed under arrest. After a squad car was called to transport Frye and a tow truck called to transport his vehicle, a crowd began to form. Officer Minikus would not allow the elder Frye brother to take the car so he walked to his home to get their mother iso that she could get the car. Upon arriving at the scene, the Frye’s were not encountered by the small crowd that they left, but to a crowd of over 250 people. Rena Frye reprimanded her son and tension grew between the two of them. The patrolmen noticed such tension and attempted to subdue Marquette and he began to resist. After this the entire incident began to spiral downward, with Ms. Frye and her other son becoming violent with other officers. All three members of the Frye family were eventually arrested. While the Fryes were being transported from the scene, an incident occurred in which someone spit on an officer. The culprit, a woman who was erroneously reported as being pregnant was also arrested. Rumors of the Fryes and the woman being treated in an unfair manner angered the crowd. Although the incident involving the Fryes had ended, the crowd of more than 1,000 angry people remained on the scene. The members of the crowd began to vandalize property and attacking white motorists and police officers until the wee hours of the morning and subsequently, several were arrested.
Before the chaotic situation would get any better, it got much worse over the course of the next few days. After some of the tension settled the next day, elected officials, members of the police and sheriff’s departments, the district attorney’s office and community leaders agreed to meet to discuss the recent events. Ms. Frye also attended the meeting. The group attempted to persuade residents to desist the looting and violence in order that law and order be prevalent, but to no avail. Instead, groups of blacks met and proposed that white officers were removed from the Watts area and be replaced with black officers. White law enforcement officials felt the proposal would not be advantageous to controlling the situation and decided to follow procedures already established by the department. The police chief, William Parker, took matters a step further; he established a perimeter and made arrangements to request the National Guard to come to Watts. It was a decision that needed to be made quickly because it took over 500 law enforcement officers until 4:00 am the next morning to dissipate the violent crowds.
Rioting continued throughout the next day and the Watts area did not see the least bit of control until mid-afternoon. When evening came, roadblocks were set up and the curfew enforced. The Watts area was off limits to anyone who did not reside there. Although there were a few instances of fires in stores, there were no major incidents comparable to those that occurred in the days prior.
By the next day, most of the rioting, looting and violent activity had diminished greatly. California Governor, Pat Brown, visited the affected areas and even spoke to residents of such areas. Within three days, all violent activity ceased and the curfew was lifted.
After the riots were over, State officials desired to know information about the details of the incident. Governor Brown initiated a commission to gather this information and details of such were reported in Violence in the City: An End or a Beginning?, also known as the McCone Report. The report indicated that the initial cause of the riots was far beyond the Frye arrests; it was much deeper. The violent urban uprising of blacks was due to poor living conditions, lack of schools and education and the high unemployment rate. Despite these findings, little or nothing was ever done to rectify the findings of the report.
The Watts Riots situation was one of the first incidents in a major city whose basis was primarily due to housing discrimination. Coupled with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. other riots for the same cause occurred in Nebraska, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, and Michigan. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 would contribute greatly to the enforcement of fair housing as a new federal agency, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), was created to perform such duties. HUD not only enforced rules, but provided funding so that low income families could purchase homes. The Watts Riots also influenced other minority groups such as Native Americans, Hispanics and women to seek equal and just rights.
The entire McCone Report and additional information may be reviewed at the University of Southern California's website.
Several government agencies have collectively sponsored a site that details historic places during the Civil Rights Movement. Links to other pertinent sites may also be found.
Details of Civil Rights Movement exhibits and information may be found at the National Civil Rights Museum website.
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