Fifty-five years ago, five days after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, police pulled over Marquette Frye, a 21-year-old Black man, for drunken driving. When officers began beating Frye and his mother, a crowd began throwing rocks and bottles — and Watts in Los Angeles erupted in five days of rebellion. By the end, 34 people were dead and more than 1,000 injured — most at the hands of law enforcement. The nation was “shocked” at Black anger.
This is the basic narrative of the 1965 Watts uprising taught in schools — typically the first introduction Americans get to the Black struggle outside the South. In this version of the story, Black Southern activists nobly pursue nonviolent protest, Northern White liberals are the good guys who help the Southern struggle and Northern Black communities are angry and don’t use the proper methods to pursue change. Former president Bill Clinton recently reiterated this framing at U.S. Rep. John Lewis’s funeral — distinguishing the “good trouble” Lewis caused from the unruly trouble Harlem-raised Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael promoted.
This distorted narrative has contemporary parallels to the ways the media is framing present-day uprisings from Seattle to Minneapolis to New York. The story largely turns on recent incidences of police abuse and uprising rather than the years of struggle in these very blue cities that political leaders and local residents — many of whom consider themselves open and progressive — pushed aside. To start the story earlier would mean holding accountable the public officials who treated activists as unreasonable and impatient or who bemoaned police brutality or school inequality but did not rise to action.
This historically inaccurate narrative also sidesteps the ways Northern Whites might have pushed for change in the South but, faced with movements in their own cities, stalled and refused. In the case of Watts, Black community activists challenged school and housing segregation and police brutality for decades but were dismissed by public officials and residents. Recognizing the movement before the Watts uprising thus means recognizing the failure of the White power structure to support it and the grounds that produced the uprising. “As the nation, Negro and white, trembled with outrage at police brutality in the South,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. observed in 1965, “police misconduct in the North was rationalized, tolerated, and usually denied.”
A real understanding of Watts — and of where we are today — must begin with the movements that preceded it.