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Watts Uprising and Civil Rights Struggle in the 1960s Essay

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Updated: Jun 2nd, 2021

The events that occurred in Watts, one of the districts of Los Angeles, in 1965, had a racial background, like some other riots that took place in the United States during that period. Victims and material damage inflicted on the city were significant and, when evaluating this unrest from the standpoint of strength, it can be noted that a large number of people were involved in the conflict. Although the manifestations of racial segregation were less noticeable than earlier, according to Miller, “the symptoms of the approaching storm had been present in Los Angeles for years.”1 Pressure on the black population and periodic conflicts with law enforcement agencies were frequent, and the arrest of Marquette Frye and his younger brother on August 11, 1965, was the final point.2

Further events were the result of racial minorities’ dissatisfaction with the policies that the authorities adhered to, and open confrontation with police officers led to riots. Therefore, the government’s disregard for the rights and freedoms of the black population of Los Angeles and the biased attitude of the law enforcement agencies became the main drivers that prompted people to unrest.

While assessing the findings of the primary sources, it can be noted that the despair that gave rise to the rebellion reached its boiling point, and any other minor provocation of the security forces could cause an uprising. Martin Luther King, who witnessed these events, argued that the people involved in the conflict were scared, but they were relieved that they were able to draw attention to issues of racial discrimination.3 Despite the fact that this public figure condemned violence in any form of its manifestation, he sympathized with the citizens of Watts and noted that “the larger group of participants were not criminal elements.”4

This fact proves that not only marginal segments of society supported the idea of rebellion but also ordinary people who were interested in finding freedom and not being dependent on the opinion of the authorities. Shortly before the events in Los Angeles, King received the Nobel Peace Prize, which made him an authoritative member of the pacifist movement.5 Nevertheless, the opinion of the inadmissibility of people’s rights infringement could be interpreted as partial support for the rebellion’s movement.

The factors that led to the Watts uprising were not only the indifference of the authorities regarding the rights and freedoms of black people but also the brutality of police officers. As Miller states, law enforcement agencies’ actions often crossed ethical boundaries.6 Such an incident as an arrest on the unreasonable suspicion of driving under the influence of drug intoxication was the manifestation of attitude towards racial minorities.

The intensity of the situation could be justified by the fact that on that very night, the clashes of the population with police officers began, and stones, clubs, and other objects were used. As a result, martial law was declared in the zone of unrest, and a curfew was imposed, and all the available forces of law enforcement agencies were aimed at eliminating the riot.7 Based on the testimony of Martin Luther King, unemployment that reigned at the time in Los Angeles among racial minorities was one of the reasons for thousands of insurgents’ participation in the riots.8 Therefore, an insufficiently organized labor market system may also be called one of the reasons for rebels’ discontent with the current challenging situation.

The five-day riots were evidence of racial minorities’ extreme dissatisfaction with many aspects of life. The confrontation resulted in more than thirty deaths among the black population, which constituted the overwhelming majority of victims.9 The cohesion of the actions of local residents came as a surprise to police officers, and, as Miller remarks, the members of the uprising supported and defended one another both physically and morally.10

Subsequently, recovery programs after the riots were developed, and financial investments in the arrangement of Watts were significant.11 At the same time, the authorities did not recognize the validity of the actions of the population, which were regarded as mass hooliganism and the violation of public order. As a result, none of the victims received any compensation or an apology from the government.

Racial discrimination, expressed in the authorities’ indifference towards the rights and freedoms of the black population, became the key cause of the 1965 riots in Watts. The considered primary sources are of high value since they are the evidence of real events of that time. Despite the fact that, according to King, the uprising in question was not a crisis for the country, it was the collapse of the non-violence system.12 Various associations in support of the black population, which are mentioned by Hassan, did not bring the same effect as the five-day riot.13 Eyewitnesses’ observations were documented, which allowed restoring the picture of the uprising and reflecting all the crucial events. Therefore, the role of public figures and their activity is important in assessing significant historical events that influenced the course of society.

References

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Chapter 27: Watts.” In , edited by Claiborne Carson, New York: Warner Books, 1998. Provided by The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. Web.

Miller, Loren. “The Fire This Time (Prepared for Delivery, San Jose American Civil Liberties Union, November 19, 1965).” 1965. Box 29, Folder 9. Loren Miller Papers, Huntington Library.

Footnotes

  1. Loren Miller, “The Fire This Time (Prepared for Delivery, San Jose American Civil Liberties Union, 1965),” 1965, Box 29, Folder 9, Loren Miller Papers, Huntington Library, page 2.
  2. Max Felker-Kantor, “Raceriotland: The Meaning of Watts,” In The Skid Row Reader, ed. Dan Johnson, 2018, page 1.
  3. Martin Luther King Jr., “Chapter 27: Watts,” in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., e.d. Claiborne Carson (New York: Warner Books, 1998), The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. 2018. Web.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Clayborne Carson, “Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968),” in BlackPast (2007). Web.
  6. Loren Miller, “The Fire This Time,” page 9.
  7. Donna Murch, “The Many Meanings of Watts: Black Power, Wattstax, and the Carceral State,” OAH Magazine of History, Vol. 26, No. 1, Beyond Dixie: The Black Freedom Struggle Outside of the South (Oxford University Press, 2012), page 37.
  8. King Jr., “Chapter 27: Watts,” page 3.
  9. Murch, “The Many Meanings of Watts,” page 37.
  10. Loren Miller, “The Fire This Time,” page 10.
  11. Martin School, “Virna Mae Canson (1921-2003),” in BlackPast (2014). Web.
  12. King Jr., “Chapter 27: Watts,” page 5.
  13. Amina Hassan, “Loren Miller (1903-1967),” in BlackPast (2008). Web.
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