In August of 1965, after the arrest and beating of Black youth Marquette Frye, the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles erupted in a groundswell of civil unrest that lasted six days, caused numerous deaths and injuries, and millions of dollars in damages. Although many people tend to imagine California as a region free of racial discrimination, a look into the socio-economic conditions and quality of life in Watts and other low-income neighborhoods of color in California and beyond suggests otherwise. Black U.S. neighborhoods are characterized by intense levels of police violence, poverty, food insecurity and unemployment. Housing market discrimination and other forms of structural racism prevented upward mobility and have historically relegated Black residents to substandard and unsafe living conditions. In recent years, urban renewal and land redevelopment projects designed to combat “urban decay” have made these neighborhoods vulnerable to gentrification and displacement.
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Take a head-on look at efforts to heal the social and economic wounds of Watts, acknowledging one of the oldest communities in Los Angeles as a mirror into ourselves and our future. Watch “Broken Bread” S1 E6: Watts
The notorious 1965 Rebellion was an explosion of built-up pressure in response to increasing racial tension, and structural inequality. Although 1964 and 1965 saw multiple urban uprisings in other cities across the U.S. like Detroit, Chicago and New York, the chaotic riot narrative has plagued Watts for the last five decades, overshadowing its deep and lasting legacy of political and cultural organizing. For instance, Watts residents were effectively organizing to end segregation and school inequity two full decades before the 1965 Uprising. South Los Angeles has also historically been home to a strong coalition of civil rights and social justice groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), United Civil Rights Council (UCRC), the Urban League, the L.A. County Commission on Human Relations, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Non-Violent Action Committee — many of which were active in Watts and sustained by Watts residents.
Watts had been a Black cultural and political hub prior to, during and since the 1965 Uprisings. In many ways, the negative media attention the neighborhood received obscured this identity. In other ways, the Uprisings amplified and solidified Watts as a vibrant beacon of Black radical art and activism. The 1965 Rebellion was also a catalyst for the decades of political and cultural organizing that would come to characterize Black communities across the country, most notably, the inception of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California one year later in 1966.
Here are 8 community-based organizations that reflect the strong political and cultural lineage of Watts, California:
Westminster Neighborhood Association
Funded and organized in 1959 by Los Angeles Presbyterians, the Westminster Neighborhood Association worked to help relieve the effects of poverty in Watts. The Westminster Neighborhood Association collaborated with other non-Church groups to offer youth programs such as sports, field trips, daycare services and classes that explored everything from phonics to African and Black American history. When the smoke had cleared after the 1965 Uprising, the Westminster Neighborhood Association was the only building left standing on its block. To support the recovery of the neighborhood, the Westminster Neighborhood Association solicited emergency donations of food, clothing and money to distribute to Watts residents impacted by violence, property damage and other trauma. They also provided a safe space for Watts residents and community groups to organize and rebuild.
The Watts Writer’s Workshop
The Watts Writer’s Workshop was a creative writing group developed by Academy Award-winning screenplay writer Budd Schulberg just one month after the 1965 Rebellion. Originally housed in the two-story storefront of the Westminster Neighborhood Association, the Watts Writer’s Workshop provided a creative outlet for Black youth in Watts and the surrounding South L.A. neighborhoods. Participants used poetry, prose and other forms of writing to heal and rebuild from the collective trauma and chaos of the Uprisings, and to express the frustrations of inner-city life. As the Watts Writer’s Workshop grew, it gained national acclaim through media outlets like NBC and brought visibility to the talent and genius emanating from Watts. Although it officially ended in 1975, several workshop members went on to use their platform to impact national conversations about race and social policy, validating the power of art and creative writing as a useful form of activism.
The Watts Happening Coffee House
After a year at the Westminster Neighborhood Association, the Watts Writer’s Workshop outgrew the space and moved to the Watts Happening Coffee House — an abandoned furniture store converted by the community into an art center where musicians, poets, activists and artists would gather and perform in the years following the Uprisings. During the 1970s and 80s, the popularity and maintenance of the Watts Happening Coffee House declined as residents and organizations began to move out of Watts and other neighborhoods (like Leimert Park) became new centers for Black art and theater productions. The space was neglected and inactive for several decades until the mid-1990s, when Black Business Expo President Harold Hambrick and local chef/caterer Desiree Edwards reopened it in a building across the street from the original location, calling it simply, “The Watts Coffee House”. Since then, the space has once again become a hub for art, organizing, and delicious Soul Food.
The Mafundi Institute
The Mafundi Institute was a thriving Black radical art and culture academy that came to life after the 1965 Uprisings. The Mafundi (which means “artisan” in Swahili) helped demoralized Watts residents to repair and redefine their sense of community and self-worth through drama, film making, dance and more. The Mafundi Institute also offered history and political theory classes, as well as rare opportunities for participants to develop audio-visual skills like radio broadcasting and darkroom photo development. Although its doors closed in the mid-1970s, the Mafundi building is still standing, and currently shares its space with the resuscitated Watts Coffee House. In recent years the Watts Village Theater Company has sought to raise funds to revitalize the space and stage new plays in the Mafundi building.
Studio Watts Workshop
The Studio Watts Workshop was founded in 1964 as a collectively-run performance space for creative expression and social change. Master artists like Jayne Cortez, Guy Miller, Carmencita Romero and Bruce Strobridge provided training in music, drama, dance, poetry, writing and multimedia visual arts. In 1969, Studio Watts shifted its focus from community arts and began working to create affordable, livable housing for low-income families throughout the neighborhood. With the support of the Doris Duke and Ford Foundations, as well as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Studio Watts constructed a 144-unit complex of rent-subsidized apartments in 1971.
Watts Towers Arts Center
The Watts Towers Arts Center has been a creative and artistic focal point in Watts since 1965. Constructed next to Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers — an internationally renowned cultural landmark — the Watts Towers Arts Center has provided countless artists and students a safe space to create art, perform music and theater productions, and tell unique stories of life in post-uprising Watts. The Watts Towers Arts Center currently has several artists in residence and a range of educational art programming from piano and vocal classes to film making and martial arts. They also have a community garden that functions as an outdoor art studio, and a “Horses in the Hood” program that helps connect young people to nature through equestrian activities.
Watts Labor Community Action Committee
In 1965 (just a few months before the Uprisings), United Auto Workers Union member Ted Watkins, Sr. founded the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) to help Watts residents improve their quality of life. In the decades since, the WLCAC has been a major employer of Watts residents, and has impacted local community health in a myriad of ways. They campaigned for the construction of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital and supported the creation of the Watts’ United Credit Union, which helped thousands of residents to become financially stable until it closed in 2009. The WLCAC has also worked to combat the housing crisis in Watts by developing homeownership programs, providing low-income, subsidized, and assisted living opportunities, and building McCoy Villa: a 64-unit housing complex for formerly incarcerated and homeless families. The WLCAC currently offers several amenities at its headquarters, including a youth park, a multimedia technology institute, a performing art space and an international market place. They offer a Farmer’s Market every first and third Wednesday of the month, and they are also nearing the completion of MudTown Farms — an urban agriculture park, community space and training center slated to help Watts residents improve food access and health outcomes, and achieve economic and environmental sustainability.
Watts/Century Latino Organization
The demographics throughout Los Angeles have shifted in recent decades and Latino families have come to significantly outnumber Blacks and other ethnicities in South L.A. neighborhoods. Since 1990, the Watts/Century Latino Organization (WCLO) has worked to address the needs of Watts’ growing Latino population and improve inter-ethnic solidarity between Black and Latino residents. This was especially important after another instance of racially-charged civil unrest rocked South Central L.A. again in 1992. The WCLO has helped to foster cross-racial coalitions that address structural issues like pollution and gang violence, which impact the entire community. They have also partnered with local financial institutions and lending companies to increase opportunities for homeownership, small businesses and education for Watts residents. A strong presence in the neighborhood, the WCLO offers an annual multicultural Cinco de Mayo Celebration, resources for immigrants and undocumented residents, and even a community garden in partnership with the Watts Leadership Institute and the Annenberg Foundation.
Artistry and activism have been central to Watts’ identity since before the Uprisings and these elements have functioned in the years since to shift public perceptions and paint a more accurate picture of the creativity and vibrancy of the region. Watts has produced some of the most outspoken, forward-thinking artists and activists of the 20th Century, whose work and influence have demonstrated that marginalized communities can use artistic expression to change their circumstances and control their own narrative. The success and longevity of the organizations profiled here is especially impressive considering that they operated in a hostile environment, abandoned by industry and heavily surveilled and infiltrated by government agencies seeking to destroy and delegitimize them. That they survived and even thrived in the face of such repression speaks to the resiliency of Watts as a community, and the centrality of art and social justice to the identity formation of a neighborhood.