While the origins of racial tension in Los Angeles have roots deed in the city's history extending back to its founding, which Spanish settlors divided into a powerful landowning class of Europeans and a peasant class of mixed-race mestizos, it was the World War II era migration of large numbers of African Americans from the east to California which resulted in the adoption of both public and private restrictions creating de facto color barriers (despite such restrictions having been ruled unconstitutional in Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948)). Racial tensions were high in the city during the summer of 1965, as in much of the country, as a result of local obstruction of efforts to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
On the evening of Wednesday, August 11, 1965, 21-year-old Marquette Frye, an African-American man driving his mother's 1955 Buick while drunk, was pulled over by California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer Lee Minikus for alleged reckless driving. After Frye failed a field sobriety test, Minikus placed him under arrest and radioed for his vehicle to be impounded. Marquette's brother, Ronald, a passenger in the vehicle, walked to their house nearby, bringing their mother, Rena Price, back with him to the scene of the arrest.
When Rena Price reached the intersection of Avalon Boulevard and 116th Street that evening, she scolded Frye about drinking and driving. However, the situation quickly escalated: Someone shoved Price, Frye was struck, Price jumped an officer, and another officer pulled out a shotgun. Backup police officers attempted to arrest Frye by using physical force to subdue him. After community members reported that police had roughed up Frye and shared a rumor they had kicked a pregnant woman, angry mobs formed. As the situation intensified, growing crowds of local residents watching the exchange began yelling and throwing objects at the police officers. Frye's mother and brother fought with the officers and eventually were arrested along with Marquette Frye.
After the arrests of Price and her sons the Frye brothers, the crowd continued to grow along Avalon Boulevard. Police came to the scene to break up the crowd several times that night, but were attacked when people threw rocks and chunks of concrete. A 46-square-mile (119 square kilometer) swath of Los Angeles was transformed into a combat zone during the ensuing six days.
After a night of increasing unrest, police and local black community leaders held a community meeting on Thursday, August 12, to discuss an action plan and to urge calm. The meeting failed. Later that day, Chief Parker called for the assistance of the California Army National Guard. Chief Parker believed the riots resembled an insurgency, compared it to fighting the Viet Cong, and decreed a "paramilitary" response to the disorder. Governor Pat Brown declared that law enforcement was confronting "guerrillas fighting with gangsters".
The rioting intensified, and on Friday, August 13, about 2,300 National Guardsmen joined the police in trying to maintain order on the streets. Sergeant Ben Dunn said: "The streets of Watts resembled an all-out war zone in some far-off foreign country, it bore no resemblance to the United States of America." The first riot-related death occurred on the night of August 13, when a black civilian was killed in the crossfire during a shootout between the police and rioters. Over the next few days, rioting had then spread throughout other areas, including Pasadena, Pacoima, Monrovia, Long Beach, and even as far as San Diego, although they were very minor in comparison to Watts. About 200 Guardsmen and the LAPD were sent to assist the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) in controlling the unruly crowd.
By nightfall on Saturday, 16,000 law enforcement personnel had been mobilized and patrolled the city. Blockades were established, and warning signs were posted throughout the riot zones threatening the use of deadly force (one sign warned residents to "Turn left or get shot"). Angered over the police response, residents of Watts engaged in a full-scale battle against the first responders. Rioters tore up sidewalks and bricks to hurl at Guardsmen and police, and to smash their vehicles. Those actively participating in the riots started physical fights with police, blocked Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) firefighters from using fire hoses on protesters and burning buildings, or stopped and beat white motorists while yelling racial slurs in the area. Arson and looting were largely confined to local white-owned stores and businesses that were said to have caused resentment in the neighborhood due to low wages and high prices for local workers.
To quell the riots, Chief Parker initiated a policy of mass arrest. Following the deployment of National Guardsmen, a curfew was declared for a vast region of South Central Los Angeles. In addition to the Guardsmen, 934 LAPD officers and 718 officers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (LASD) were deployed during the rioting. Watts and all black-majority areas in Los Angeles were put under the curfew. All residents outside of their homes in the affected areas after 8:00 pm were subject to arrest. Eventually, nearly 3,500 people were arrested, primarily for curfew violations. By the morning of Sunday, August 15, the riots had largely been quelled.
Over the course of six days, between 31,000 and 35,000 adults participated in the riots. Around 70,000 people were "sympathetic, but not active." Over the six days, there were 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests, and over $40 million in property damage. Many white Americans were fearful of the breakdown of social order in Watts, especially since white motorists were being pulled over by rioters in nearby areas and assaulted. Many in the black community, however, believed the rioters were taking part in an "uprising against an oppressive system."
Despite allegations that "criminal elements" were responsible for the riots, the vast majority of those arrested had no prior criminal record. Only three sworn personnel were killed in the riots: an LAFD firefighter was struck when a wall of a fire-weakened structure fell on him while fighting fires in a store, an LASD deputy was shot when another deputy's shotgun was discharged in a struggle with rioters, and an LBPD officer was shot by another police officer's gun that was discharged during a scuffle with rioters. 23 out of the 34 people killed in the riots were shot by LAPD officers or National Guardsmen.
Debate rose quickly over what had taken place in Watts, as the area was known to be under a great deal of racial and social tension. Reactions and reasoning about the riots greatly varied based on the perspectives of those affected by and participating in the riots' chaos.
National civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke two days after the riots happened in Watts. The riots were partly a response to Proposition 14, a constitutional amendment sponsored by the California Real Estate Association and passed that had in effect repealed the Rumford Fair Housing Act. In 1966, the California Supreme Court reinstated the Rumford Fair Housing Act in the Reitman v. Mulkey case (a decision affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court the following year), declaring the amendment to violate the US constitution and laws.
A variety of opinions and explanations were published. Public opinion polls studied in the few years after the riot showed that a majority believed the riots were linked to communist groups who were active in the area protesting high unemployment rates and racial discrimination. Those opinions concerning racism and discrimination were expressed three years after hearings conducted by a committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights took place in Los Angeles to assess the condition of relations between the police force and minorities. These hearings were also intended to make a ruling on the discrimination case against the police for their alleged mistreatment of members of the Nation of Islam. These different arguments and opinions are often cited in continuing debates over the underlying causes of the Watts riots.
A commission under Governor Pat Brown investigated the riots, known as the McCone Commission, and headed by former CIA director John A. McCone. The commission released a 101-page report on December 2, 1965, entitled Violence in the City—An End or a Beginning?: A Report by the Governor's Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, 1965. The McCone Commission identified the root causes of the riots to be high unemployment, poor schools, and related inferior living conditions that were endured by African Americans in Watts. Recommendations for addressing these problems included "emergency literacy and preschool programs, improved police-community ties, increased low-income housing, more job-training projects, upgraded health-care services, more efficient public transportation, and many more." Most of these recommendations were never implemented.