What Was the Watts Rebellion?

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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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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