The summer of ‘65: Beatlemania was in full swing, SpaghettiOs hit grocery shelves, an American astronaut was walking in space and in Vietnam the nation was becoming entrenched in war.
And, on the south side of Los Angeles, then known as the city’s “colored” section, a simmering stew of unemployment, poverty and deteriorating police relations was about to boil over.
Just a little more heat would do it. It came on a sweltering August night 30 years ago in a dilapidated neighborhood known as Watts.
Marquette Frye, 21, was at the wheel of his mother’s Buick when he was arrested Aug. 11, 1965, for alleged drunken driving. A scuffle ensued. Frye, his mother, Rena, and stepbrother, Ronald, were taken into custody.
The crowd watching the arrest of the black family by white officers soon swelled to 1,000, with young black men, many shirtless, hurling rocks at officers.
The 1965 Watts riots, the first in a series of racial disturbances to sweep the nation during the late ‘60s, raged for six days across 50 square miles of south Los Angeles.
When the smoke cleared, 34 people were dead, 1,032 injured and 4,000 others arrested. Damage amounted to $40 million.
One of the rioters was Tommy Jacquette, now a community activist who heads the Watts Summer Festival, an African-American cultural celebration held every August.
“It was an opportunity to get back at the Los Angeles Police Department for all the times we were called nigger, pulled over for no reason and generally disrespected by the LAPD,” recalled Jacquette.
“We had them on the run and in a situation they couldn’t handle.”
An automotive student at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, Jacquette roamed the streets for several days, pitching rocks and flaming bottles filled with gasoline at officers and white passers-by.
“It never entered my mind that I might be killing someone. When you’re in war you don’t stop and think about the enemy,” he said.
Driven by a local disc jockey’s battle cry of “Burn, Baby, Burn,” rioters looted and torched stores and pulled white drivers from their cars to beat them.
Amid the chaos, Battalion Chief Kenneth Long and his crew of firemen dodged sniper fire while trying to douse the infernos around them.
“It seemed ludicrous to me that people would attack firefighters. It’s just nonsense. It’s just crazy,” recalled Long, now retired and living in Northern California.
Having worked in the area for several years, Long was devastated to see the charred remains of 600 structures, most of them food markets, liquor stores, furniture stores and pawn shops.
“I can remember pulling up to a curb and seeing a black attorney I knew. He was standing there with tears in his eyes. That’s how I felt,” he said.
Jacquette says it’s disappointing that the Watts riot didn’t put an end to racial inequality, “but it’s eyeopening that the problem was so deep. We just scratched the surface.”
In the aftermath of the Watts riots, the governor’s McCone Commission issued a 101-page report that blamed a cycle of poverty and despair for the violence and called for ambitious reforms including job training and improvements in public transportation.
“So serious and so explosive is the situation,” the report said, “that, unless it is checked, the August riots may seem by comparison to be only a curtain-raiser for what could blow up one day in the future.”
Unemployment in Watts was still as high as 40 percent in 1992, when four white officers were acquitted in the beating of black motorist Rodney King. That sparked four days of rioting on the city’s south side that killed 55 people, injured 2,383 and caused $1 billion damage.
The Rev. Frank J. Higgins, a Baptist minister who tried in vain to help police restore calm during the Watts rioting, says he didn’t condone the violence though he understood its origin.
“It was like fighting fire with fire,” Higgins explained.
“There is a fire of the spiritual nature that is stronger than physical fire and that fire is racism. And it’s a fire that burns the mentality of a person, it diminishes the will of a man, it demeans that person, robs him of ever being free,” he said, pausing.
“There is a fire out in America that is still burning.”