50th anniversary of Watts Rebellion

Just five days after the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Watts Rebellion erupted. It lasted several days.

Coming out of the Selma campaign, U.S. Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson was forced to introduce legislation designed to ensure the right to vote for African Americans.

Nonetheless, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the voting rights legislation the following year were not nearly enough to assuage the African-American people in their quest for full equality and self-determination. Unemployment, poverty, racist violence and substandard education fueled the anger of working-class and poor youth throughout the U.S.

As early as May 11, 1963, in Birmingham, Ala., an often forgotten rebellion occurred in the midst of the largely nonviolent struggle to break down legalized segregation. In 1964, a series of violent outbreaks occurred in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, Harlem, N.Y., and several cities in New Jersey.

Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, broke with the Nation of Islam in March 1964 and later formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity, calling for a revolutionary organization urging self-defense against racist violence and international solidarity with the African and Middle Eastern independence movements and progressive governments.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an independent organization, challenged the seating of racist Democratic Party delegates at the national convention that year in Atlantic City, N.J. Contributing to the loss of faith in the Democratic Party, they were refused recognition at the convention despite the MFDP’s mobilization and organization of tens of thousands of African-American workers, youth and farmers throughout that racist state. Fannie Lou Hamer, vice-chair of the MFDP, delivered an impassioned plea to the credentials committee of the Democratic National Convention documenting the horrors under which the African-American people of Mississippi were living in 1964.

However, the Johnson administration — utilizing Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey, who became Johnson’s running mate, and Minnesota Attorney General Walter Mondale — sought to convince the MFDP to accept two seats at-large on the promise that segregated party delegations would not be allowed at the next convention in 1968. The compromise was rejected by the MFDP, yet Johnson went on to win the presidential elections against Barry Goldwater by a landslide that November.

Watts changed course of history

On Aug. 11, 1965, a rebellion in Los Angeles was sparked by police harassment of an African-American motorist and his family. Underlying the rebellion was the continuing national oppression and the failure of civil rights laws to ensure full political and economic rights to the Black masses.

Aug. 13, 1965: National Guard troops occupy Watts.

Aug. 13, 1965: National Guard troops occupy Watts.

That day a very common incident occurred when Marquette Frye, an African-American youth, was stopped with his brother in the car and later arrested by Lee W. Minikus, a white California Highway Patrol officer. Minikus said that Frye was suspected of being under the influence of alcohol and resisted arrest. Soon the youths’ mother came on the scene and moved in to protect her sons, who were being accosted by the cops.

In a matter of minutes, a crowd of people had gathered at the scene of Frye’s arrest at Avalon and 116th streets. The decades-long strained relations between police and the community exploded into a confrontation.

This skirmish soon spread throughout the area in the commercial district of Watts, an extremely impoverished African-American neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. During the course of the next week, tens of thousands of people took to the streets, overturning and burning automobiles and liberating and destroying supermarkets, liquor stores, retail outlets and pawnshops.

The weeklong rebellion required more than 14,000 California National Guard troops, mobilized across a curfew zone covering 45 miles, to restore stability. It resulted in the loss of 34 lives and more than 1,000 reported injuries.

Four thousand people were arrested before order was restored on Aug. 17. Elected officials and law-enforcement agencies promoted the notion that the unrest was the result of “outside agitators.”

Nonetheless, a study completed that December by the McCone Commission, appointed by California Gov. Pat Brown, discovered what the African-American community had already known: that the rebellion was the direct outcome of the people’s subjection to high unemployment rates, substandard housing and inadequate schools. Despite the commission’s findings, municipal and state officials systematically refused to reform police-community relations or create conditions for the social and economic advancement of African Americans in the Watts area.

According to the website blackpast.org: “In spite of the protest, the Watts Rebellion did not significantly improve the lives of the community’s Black population. While the revolt inspired the federal government to implement programs to address unemployment, education, healthcare, and housing under Lyndon B. Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty,’ much of the money allocated for these programs was eventually absorbed by the Vietnam War. Today most of the population of Watts is Latino with many residents from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Although the population has changed, many of the issues of poverty, alienation and discrimination still plague the community today.”

Legacy of the Watts Rebellion

The Watts Rebellion was the largest of such outbreaks led by African Americans up until that time. It was followed by hundreds of other rebellions between 1965 and 1970 throughout the U.S.

In 1966, “Black Power!” became the rallying cry of millions, stemming from the “March Against Fear” through Mississippi that June. Organizers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, such as Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture), H. Rap Brown (later Jamil Abdullah al-Amin) and Willie Ricks (Mukassa Dada), placed greater emphasis on self-determination, Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism.

Thousands of African Americans were elected to public office and millions entered higher educational institutions and employment categories from which they had previously been excluded. Nonetheless, racial capitalism and national oppression remained entrenched.

When the world economic system began a massive restructuring in the mid-to-late 1970s, many of the gains won through the Civil Rights, Black Power and women’s movements were eroded. By the first decade of the 21st century, affirmative action programs were outlawed in various states. The downsizing of education and public systems of governance disproportionately impacted the oppressed communities, since it was in these sectors that the most profound advances had been made.

Out of these rebellions came an emphasis on revolutionary politics, armed struggle and self-determination. It was only after the urban rebellions that any serious movements towards affirmative action, electoral reform and community control were begun.

Significance of Watts in 2015

Today, urban rebellion remains a key element in the struggle of the African-American people against national oppression and economic exploitation. Since 2012, with the vigilante killing of Trayvon Martin and the resultant acquittal of George Zimmerman, a rising consciousness of and intolerance for racism has been rapidly accelerating.

When 18-year-old Michael Brown was gunned down by Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, a rebellion erupted in Ferguson, Mo., prompting mass demonstrations throughout the U.S. and around the world. Another rebellion in Baltimore this April further illustrated the re-emerging, militant character of the African-American people.

These rebellions and demonstrations must be organized into an independent revolutionary movement. The U.S. capitalist system fundamentally has nothing to offer oppressed youth.

The plight of African Americans and other oppressed nations have not been addressed at all by the administration of President Barack Obama. Nominees for the Democratic and Republican presidential candidacies are conveniently sidestepping the question of the national oppression of people-of-color communities.

Such a political atmosphere provides vast avenues of opportunity for a revolutionary movement to organize these constituencies in opposition to the ruling class. The unrest in Ferguson surrounding the first anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown illustrates that people are ready to fight and only need effective organization to give expression to their social and political aspirations.