DOJ Litigation Case File on the Watts Riot (August 11-17, 1965)

Today’s blog was written by Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

During the World War II years, thousands of southern African Americans relocated to the West Coast in search of employment in the defense industries and to escape the Jim Crow South. Many of the migrants made the Watts Neighborhood in Southern part of Los Angeles, California home. By the mid-1960s, this neighborhood had become all-black. But due to a weakening economy, the Vietnam War, disappearance of manufacturing jobs, and discrimination, this neighborhood started to diminish. As a result, residents of Watts suffered from overcrowding, unemployment, inaccessible health care, and a growing increase in crime and drug addiction. These impoverishing conditions caused a lot of frustration and anger among African Americans in the community.

Image of a woman during the Watts Riot in 1965. Case file 144-12-1102, Section 3 (NAID 7987738). Image may be subject to copyright restrictions.

Newspaper image of a woman during the Watts Riot in 1965. Case file 144-12-1102, Section 3 (NAID 7987738). Image may be subject to copyright restrictions.

On August 11, 1965, Marquette Frye, a 21 year-old black man was pulled over by Lee Minikus, a white California Highway Patrol officer on the corner of Avalon Boulevard and 116th Street in Watts for the suspicion of driving under the influence. During the arrest, a crowd gathered and police backup was called in. Frye’s mother and brother came to his assistance, but they were also arrested. The arrest of the Fryes, along with the declining conditions in Watts, caused the neighborhood to erupt. For six days, buildings were burnt, people were assaulted, and stores were looted. The unrest ended on August 17th, with thirty-four people dead, over a 1,000 people injured, 4,000 people arrested, and nearly $40 million in property damage.

RG 60 Class 144 (Civil Rights) Litigation Case Files, 1936-1997 (NAID 603432) consists of records used to establish cases and investigations that violated the Civil Rights Act. Case file 144-12-1102 contains letters, investigative reports, newspaper clippings, and other related documentation on the Watts Riot in 1965. In section 2, section 3, and section 4 are mostly letters and telegrams from citizens who expressed concern and anger towards the Watts Riots and made claim that the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were not capable of maintaining peace among the different races. Also in these sections, are suggestions from various organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on how to deal with the violence and socioeconomic conditions in Watts.

Other items and file units at the National Archives related to the Watts Riot:

  • CBS Special Report–Race Riot in Watts (NAID 116943) from the series Audio Recordings Forming the Milo Ryan Phonoarchive of Radio Newscasts Relating to World War II and Special Coverage of Other Historical Events, ca. 1931 – ca. 1977 (NAID 113397)
  • Conflict in America: Program #20: Robert M. Fogelson: The Watts Riots (Los Angeles) (NAID 108361) from the series Audio Recordings of the “Forum” Radio Program, 1940 – 1983 (NAID 106531)
  • 44-31653, California (1966) Watts Riots (NAID 7637954) from the series Classification 44 (Civil Rights) Headquarters Case Files, 1924 – 1978 (NAID 2329984)
  • Los Angeles, [California] – 157-2712-v.1 [Classification – Civil Unrest] — Possible Riot in Watts Area LA, CA (NAID 5551483) from the series Classification 157 (Civil Unrest) Case Files, 1957 – 1978 (NAID 1513564)
  • Photographic Prints of Urban Destruction Caused by Riots and of Rehabilitation Projects, 1969 (NAID 535512)
  • Dateline: Labor Department Report on Negro Family Daniel Moynihan, Civil Rights, Race Relations, Poverty, Ghetto, Watts Riot, Illegitimacy, Jobs (NAID 125800)
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