The Watts Riots

The Watts Riots

The Aug. 15, 1965, edition of the Los Angeles Times. (Newseum collection)

Fifty years ago on Aug. 11, 1965, in Los Angeles’s Watts neighborhood, the arrest of a black motorist caused a melee that sparked six days of deadly riots, ushering in a new era of racial unrest.

The riots occurred five days after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, with civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and John Lewis by his side. Thirty four people were killed, 1,000 were injured and nearly 4,000 were arrested. Life magazine called the Watts riots “the most destructive race riots in U.S. history.”

On the third day of unrest, Robert Richardson, a young black messenger for the Los Angeles Times, dodged bullets as he rushed to phone in his eyewitness accounts to the news desk. His articles helped earn the Times a Pulitzer for its coverage of the riots. The newspaper had no black reporters at the time.

As war raged in Vietnam, Time magazine compared the violent scenes in the streets of Los Angeles to those in “embattled Saigon.”

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