Watts Summer Festival

Watts Summer Festival

Date Observed: Second weekend in August
Location: Watts neighborhood, Los Angeles, California

The Watts Summer Festival is held each year during the month of August over a three-day period, Friday through Sunday. It is held partly to commemorate 34 residents of Watts (an African-American neighborhood in Los Angeles, California) who died during the August 1965 revolt or riot. The festival also serves as a vehicle to bring positive focus on the community.

Historical Background

Between August 11 and 17, 1965, the relatively unknown community of Watts in Los Angeles, California, made a major impression on the rest of the United States. The Watts uprising resulted from racial tensions that had been brewing in the Los Angeles metropolitan area for decades.

Ironically, Los Angeles is the only major city in the United States founded by settlers largely of African descent. According to the 1900 census, 2,100 African Americans resided in the city in that year, and within a decade, the number would grow to 15,000. During the early part of the 20th century, many African Americans owned homes in the city. But housing bans which at first were intended for Asians, Mexicans, and Jews eventually were applied against blacks who were relegated to South Los Angeles communities such as Watts. These areas notoriously were on the bottom rung for delivery of civic services. Not only was housing substandard, but medical care was spotty, schools under par, and employment opportunities few and far between.

All of this laid the groundwork for what erupted in August of 1965. On the evening of August 11, a white California Highway Patrol Officer, Lee Minkus, pulled over Marquette Frye, a young black man, for erratic driving. A crowd gathered as Frye and his brother, Ronald, were questioned. Their mother Rena arrived, after which accounts vary; however, there is no dispute that at some point a struggle ensued and the three Frye family members were taken into custody. Subsequently, a bottle was thrown at a police vehicle.

Later on that evening, into the late night and early morning hours of the next day, sporadic incidents of violence began to occur. Concerned community leaders called a meeting in Athens Park at midday on the 12th, hoping to quell the growing fury. Instead, television cameras broadcast an angry black youth proclaiming his intent to "burn" the neighborhood - helping to incite others who shared his rage and fueling the defensiveness of those who feared the worse. The 13th brought thousands of African-American residents to the streets; by that evening, thousands of National Guardsmen were deployed and the first deaths had occurred.

Over the course of the next few days, Americans watched in disbelief as buildings burned and businesses were looted. The tally of devastation by the time curfew was lifted on August 17 was stunning: 34 Watts residents dead, 1,100 people injured, 4,000 arrests, 600 buildings damaged or destroyed across a 100-block area, and an estimated $200 million in damages.

Creation of the Festival

A number of Watts community activists came together after the incendiary events of that August 1965 summer. They were intent on changing the city's, the nation's, and even the world's impression of their corner of the globe. The activists believed that the television cameras that had been focused upon their neighborhood for such a few, short days had captured limited, biased, uninformed, and prejudicial impressions of their community. Therefore, these Watts residents were anxious to find a way to convey a more realistic, positive, and human view of their lives. And so the idea for the Watts Summer Festival was born.

The first festival was held in 1966 as a fairly free-form event. Booths were set up on the streets, and there were no charges to vendors who exhibited. All energies were devoted to making the festival an upbeat event, one where the community could begin to feel a sense of pride and belonging.

As time has passed, the festival has grown, and it has become more organized and structured - to the dismay of some and the delight of others. The festival attracts many people, year after year, and it also continues to receive the support of famous African Americans, from top musicians to prominent movie stars.

In 1972, Wattstax, a concert offshoot of the festival's entertainment events, was held at L.A.'s Memorial Coliseum, the first time an African-American organization ever sold out that venue, and an accompanying album Wattstax, the Living World was recorded. The following year, a spin-off Wattstax film was produced; a special restoration version was released with much fanfare in June 2003.


Over the second weekend in August, festivalgoers look forward to such activities and displays as art and business exhibits, a carnival, a children's village, a sports village, a senior citizens' pavilion, various concerts and performing arts shows, food and beverage concession stands, a custom car/bike/van show, a fashion show, and a film festival.

"Spirit of Watts Tours" also are given during the festival to make certain that the neighborhood's history is not forgotten, as well as to ensure that misconceptions about the area's past are dispelled and positive views about its development are represented.

A variety of social service needs are also tended to during the festival, with representatives from numerous civic and other groups on hand to offer assistance and information.

Lastly, the festival's community forum provides a place for debate and exchange of ideas about issues that affect African Americans at the local, state, national, and international levels.

Contacts and Web Sites

10950 S. Central Ave. Watts, CA 90059 323-789-7304; fax: 323-789-5652

Watts Renaissance Planning Committee 10950 S. Central Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90059 310-221-0080; fax: 310-221-0514

Further Reading

Diver-Stamnes, Anne C. Lives in the Balance: Youth, Poverty, and Education in Watts. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. Horne, Gerald. Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995. Hunt, Darrell M. Screening the Los Angeles 'Riots': Race, Seeing, and Resistance. Edited by Jeffrey C. Alexander and Steven Seidman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Jacobs, Ronald N. Race, Media, and the Crisis of Civil Society: From Watts to Rodney King. Edited by Jeffrey C. Alexander and Steven Seidman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007
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Tommy Jacquette-Halifu (1943-2009) was a co-founder of the annual Watts Summer Festival in 1966, a founding member of the organization Us, executive director of the Watts Summer Festival for over 40 years, a highly-respected social activist, community organizer, and veteran of the 1965 Watts Revolt.
Just this year, I joked with him that if he had two dimes to rub together, there would be a Watts Summer Festival.
The Watts Summer Festival is uniquely Tommy, bringing people together and focusing both on local and national talent, always with an Afro-centric theme.