The Controversy of the Watts Riots (by Luis Díaz)


Students will examine the Watts Riots through a series of primary and secondary sources, and craft their own interpretation of the Watts Riots, while analyzing both its causes and the effects it had on the Watts community.


The Watts Riots are known to have been the most notorious set of events that overtook the Watts community, found within the bigger South Central Los Angeles area, on August 11, 1965. The riots led to millions in property damage, dozens of deaths, and hundreds of injuries. This lesson allows students to examine the aspects that led up to the Watts Riots, and also allows them to come up with their own analysis of the Watts Riots. Students will learn the difference between a riot and a revolt and will be asked to justify whether or not the Watts riots were really a series of riots or an uprising in its totality.

Essential Understanding:

Students are invited to interpret the Watts Riots, and asked to determine whether or not this incident is truly a series of riots or more of an uprising.

Essential Questions:

1. What were the causes that led to the Watts Riots?
2. Why would the Watts residents destroy their own neighborhood?
3. Can the Watts Riots be considered an uprising rather a riot? What is the difference?
4. Did the Watts incident have any affects on other cities? If so, how did the Watts riot influence other cities and why would those same cities be moved to engage in such demonstrations?
5. Were the riots the best way to bring the racial tensions faced within Watts to the attention of the government?
6. What effects did the Watts Riots have on the African-American community and their involvement in creating and joining organizations to build the Watts community?
7. Was the Watts Riots worth it? Has the community developed since the riots?


Thomas Surgrue the author of the book Sweet Land of Liberty presents us with definitions that are important in clarifying the difference between a revolt and an uprising. Below are the quoted definitions from Surgure’s book of two of the terms we have been mentioned within this lesson: riot and uprising.

  • Riots: “…an ancient word describing a seemingly senseless, inarticulate expression of violence and rage¾one that observers continued to use because of its imprecision and its association with mobs and irrationality.” [1]
  • Uprising: “ It suggested a spontaneous upsurge of protest or violent expression of discontent, something with political content, but short of a full-fledged revolutionary act.” [2]


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was suppose to have had relieved racial tensions within communities of color. However many states, including California, did not enforce the federal law and instead created propositions aimed at crippling the Civil Rights Act. Such propositions like Prop. 14, “which moved to block the fair housing section of the Act”[1] created anger and injustice within cities and affected neighborhoods like Watts.

The Watts Riots began on August 11, 1965 and lasted five days. This riot led to the death of 34 individuals, hundreds who were injured, and a lot more who were arrested. The riot initiated right after the arrest of Marquette Frye, an African-American male, had been pulled over by a white police officer based on the assumption that Frye was under the influence. Frye was then brutally physically abused by officers and placed into custody. This arrest was the zenith point within the black community that created uproar within the Watts neighborhood. Watts’s residents, mostly African-Americans, had gotten tired of racial discrimination, police brutality, and the lack of government attention and social reform. In order to speak up against these issues of mainstream discrimination, the Watts community led a violent movement that led to millions of dollars in property damage and fear within the norms of the mainstream society.

Many whites believed that the Watts Riots had been plotted by outside agitators, “…the white population viewed the riots extremely negatively and suspected outside agitation…[however] official consensus was that none of them had been the result of conspiracies.”[2] There were even rumors that black demonstrations, such as the Watts Riots, were communist inspired, which quickly “began a backlash against Civil Rights movements…more militant leaders who supported the urban uprisings, such as Stokely Carmicheal and H. Rap Brown, were accused of having conspired to bring violence down on American’s cities.”[3]  Many blacks hoped that Watts Riots would bring more attention to the racial problems in Watts, and even though this incident provided Watts with national attention, little efforts to relieve racial tensions were taken.

After the riots, governor at the time, Pat Brown led an investigation to the study the riots. The investigation conclude that, “…the riots weren’t the act of thugs, but rather symptomatic of much deeper problems: the high jobless rate in the inner city, poor housing, and bad schools.”[4] However, although the problems were brought to the light, no great efforts were made to tackle them or even to rebuild what had been destroyed during the riots.


  • A brief video providing background information to the Watts Riots (if you click the link will go to the video .) giving the student a sense of the violent atmosphere.
  • Primary and secondary sources that provide interpretations to Watts Riots:

1. Wilson, Warren G.. “Black Reporter’s Eyewitness Account of Watts Riots ½” NewsInHistory.com½A Chronicle of America’s Past. N.p., n.d. 26 Feb 2012. <’s-eyewitness-accounts-watts-riots>.

2. “Watts Riots.” South Central History.<>. (accessed February 29, 2012).

3. “Watts Riot.”<>. (accessed February 29, 2012).

4. Newton, Huey. “A Huey P. Newton Story – Times – Watts Riots – PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. <>. (accessed February 28, 2012).


 Step 1:  The teacher will show the students the introductory video on the Watts Riots.

Step 2:  Have students research the Watts Riots and answer the questions mentioned above. There are links under the Material section that will help students with this section.

Step 3: Create a debate-like class structure, where you split students into two groups. The first group of students will argue in favor of labeling the Watts Riots as an uprising and the second group of students will argue in favor of labeling the Watts Riots as they are currently labeled, riots. Students will gather facts and statistics from their research and use it as their form of evidence to hold their arguments. The teacher can serve as the mediator.

Step 4: After Step 3, students will come up with ways in which the government could have reformed the community of Watts after the riots.

Additional Sources:

  • Sugrue, Thomas J.. Sweet land of liberty: the forgotten struggle for civil rights in the North. New York: Random House, 2008.


  • Students compare the present with the past, evaluating the consequences of past events and decisions and determining the lessons that were learned.
  • Students distinguish valid arguments from fallacious arguments in historical interpretations.
  • Students identify bias and prejudice in historical interpretations.
  • Students understand the meaning, implication, and impact of historical events and recognize that events could have taken another direction.
  •  Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of text as a whole.
  • Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide and accurate summary that makes clear the relationship among key details and ideas.
  • Determining the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and redefines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text.
  • Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.
  • Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media in order to address a question or solve a problem. 

[1] Newton, Huey. “A Huey P. Newton Story – Times – Watts Riots – PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. <;. (accessed February 28, 2012).

[2] “Watts Riots.”<>. (accessed February 29, 2012).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Newton, Huey. “A Huey P. Newton Story – Times – Watts Riots – PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. <;. (accessed February 28, 2012).

[1] Sugrue, Thomas J.. Sweet land of liberty: the forgotten struggle for civil rights in the North. New York: Random House, 2008.

[2] Ibid.

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