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What Was the Watts Rebellion?

The Watts Rebellion, a pivotal event in 1965, was a powerful outcry against systemic injustice and racial discrimination in Los Angeles. Sparked by a traffic stop, it escalated into six days of unrest, highlighting the urgent need for civil rights reform. How did this uprising shape America's social landscape? Join us as we explore its lasting impact. What changes followed in its wake?
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

In August 1965, the primarily black Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts experienced six days of violent protests and police brutality which came to be known as the Watts Rebellion. The Watts Rebellion marked a major turning point in the growing civil rights movement, adding fuel to the fire of radical activism and stimulating serious discussion and debate in Los Angeles and beyond. This event in Los Angeles history continues to be a topic of discussion, especially when racially charged events such as the Rodney King beating make the news.

Constructing the history of the Watts Rebellion is complex, thanks to the assortment of conflicting reports from the time about the riots, their cause, and those involved. Most historians generally agree that the Watts Rebellion didn't come out of nowhere, however; by August 1965, the region was a powder keg charged to explode. In the preceding months, the community in Watts had witnessed a variety of police shootings, beatings, and other events which they maintained were unprovoked, and they were starting to get very angry.

Watts is a neighborhood in Los Angeles.
Watts is a neighborhood in Los Angeles.

The catalyst for the Watts Rebellion was the decision of a California Highway Patrol officer to pull over a car because he suspected that the driver was drunk. The scene attracted attention as the officer dealt with the occupants in the car, ultimately refusing to let the driver's brother take over, and radioing for a tow truck to come and impound the car. The gathering crowd grew increasingly restive and angry until people ultimately started throwing rocks and other objects at the police, and the Watts riots commenced.

Los Angeles is in southern California.
Los Angeles is in southern California.

Over the course of six days, the population of Watts stormed the streets, attacking policemen and white motorists while looting buildings, setting fire to homes and businesses, and obstructing safety personnel like nurses and firemen. The Los Angeles police grew increasingly violent in response, arresting thousands, opening fire on demonstrators, and mercilessly beating participants in the Watts Rebellion along with innocent bystanders. Hospitals quickly became choked with the injured, while the police ran out of room for their prisoners.

It took a deployment of the California National Guard to quell the Watts riots, which ended with millions of dollars of damage and 34 dead, along with over 1,000 injured. The events of the Watts Rebellion were sobering for Californians and Americans in general, illustrating the extremely volatile mood in urban black neighborhoods and setting the stage for the coming years of the civil rights struggle.

Frequently Asked Questions

What sparked the Watts Rebellion?

The Watts Rebellion, also known as the Watts Riots, was ignited on August 11, 1965, when a young African American motorist named Marquette Frye was pulled over and arrested by a white California Highway Patrol officer for suspicion of drunk driving. Tensions escalated as a crowd gathered, and the situation turned violent, reflecting the community's longstanding grievances over racial discrimination, police brutality, and economic inequality in the predominantly African American neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles.

How long did the Watts Rebellion last and what was the extent of the damage?

The Watts Rebellion lasted for six days, from August 11 to August 16, 1965. During this period, widespread looting, arson, and violence engulfed the neighborhood. According to the California Governor's Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, also known as the McCone Commission, there were 34 deaths, over 1,000 injuries, nearly 4,000 arrests, and an estimated $40 million in property damage (equivalent to over $320 million today when adjusted for inflation).

What were the underlying causes of the Watts Rebellion?

The Watts Rebellion was the result of deep-seated frustrations among African Americans in Watts and other urban areas. These communities faced systemic issues such as high unemployment, poor living conditions, inadequate schools, and racial segregation. The immediate incident involving Marquette Frye was the catalyst, but the underlying causes were rooted in institutional racism and economic disparities that had been building for decades.

What was the impact of the Watts Rebellion on civil rights and social policies?

The Watts Rebellion had a significant impact on civil rights and social policies in the United States. It brought national attention to the plight of African Americans in urban centers and highlighted the need for major reforms. The event helped to spur the Civil Rights Movement, leading to increased efforts to address racial inequalities and poverty. It also prompted government initiatives like the War on Poverty and the establishment of the Kerner Commission, which investigated the causes of the 1967 race riots and recommended measures to prevent such events in the future.

How is the Watts Rebellion remembered and commemorated today?

The Watts Rebellion is remembered as a pivotal moment in the struggle for civil rights and social justice in the United States. It is commemorated through educational programs, community events, and cultural expressions that honor the history and legacy of the uprising. The Watts Towers Arts Center, for example, serves as a community space that celebrates the resilience and creativity of the Watts neighborhood. Additionally, scholars and activists continue to study the rebellion to understand its lessons and apply them to contemporary social issues.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a UnitedStatesNow researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a UnitedStatesNow researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments


@kentuckycat - You are absolutely correct. Whenever there is a riot that is racially motivated it is a black eye on the cities history and is basically impossible to shake. People associate racism with the problems that caused people to revolt and this is reflective on the way things are in the city. Because of this people studying the city's history assume that it must have been a really racist, bad situation at the time and that their city may not have been a very happy place to live.

I used to live in St. Louis and they still talk about the race riot that occurred there in 1917 and I have also lived in Chicago and besides gangsters like Al Capone the worst things that are talked about in schools involved the race riot Red Summer, which may be the worst in American history.

Instances like these never reflect well on a city's history and it is unfortunate, but must be studied in order to get an idea of the past so we can learn from it and move on.


I like how whenever there is a riot of some sort there is a catalyst that is always involved that does not necessarily have much significance to the problems at hand.

With the Watts rebellion it seemed like it was a simple traffic stop with racial motives involved. Because there were a lot of people that did not like what they saw and they had all this pent up racial tension they just naturally reacted and revolted against what they saw as the symbol of their oppressors, the police officers.

In any riot a catalyst must happen in order for it to gain steam and it can be something complex and significant or it can be something as simple as a single routine act that is seen as unfair by those who are frustrated with the situations they are forced to live in.


@stl156 - I have to agree with you about the Watts rebellion and its relation to the Civil Rights movement. I have studied various other race riots, such as Red Summer in Chicago in 1919 and the East St. Louis race riot in 1917 and riots like these happen in very racially charged areas and the Watts riot is no different, except that it occurred during the Civil Rights movement.

I see the Watts riot as being similar to the race riots in 1968 in Detroit in that people were sick of all the racism and the way the police were treating blacks in the area and eventually revolted because of something they did not like.

Instances like these are usually black eyes on the cities history and are very hard to shake away.


The Watts rebellion is similar to any other race riot that has occurred in this country. Throughout the 20th century there were several riots that were similar to the Watts rebellion and was simply a case of built up racially charged tension that eventually spilled over into a full scale riot.

Although the Watts rebellion can be connected to the Civil Rights movement it is no different than various other riots that occurred throughout the 20th century. All had similar circumstances and the much needed catalyst that caused all the frustrations to come out in a very violent outburst.

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    • Watts is a neighborhood in Los Angeles.
      By: Brian Weed
      Watts is a neighborhood in Los Angeles.
    • Los Angeles is in southern California.
      By: pavalena
      Los Angeles is in southern California.