From Watts Riot Ashes: Bright Hopes, Heartaches


After the Watts riots came the celebrities.

And the philanthropists, sculptors, industrialists, government officials, bankers, choreographers, social workers, union officials and even one man who gave dimes to youths who promised to be “good guys.”

It was 1965 and Los Angeles had just suffered the worst urban disturbances in U.S. history.

The well-meaning people who came to Watts made it the social services laboratory for the “Great Society” 1960s, the ultimate experiment in resurrecting a poverty-stricken, strife-torn neighborhood to prevent the fire next time. Each program came with the promise of a better life.


Although a handful of the programs still exist, by the time the fire did come again, the vast majority had died. The celebrities and other notables had stopped coming around, the donations had dried up and some of the economic schemes had proved unworkable.

While it lasted, however, it had been a golden age for Watts. There had been programs for job training, economic development, social reform and artistic expression. Television camera operators were trained, black dolls manufactured, plays were produced, a shopping center and hospital built, a movie theater opened, and a small factory produced big-league “Watts Walloper” baseball bats.

Celebrities such as Karl Malden, Diahann Carroll, Robert Vaughn and Vicki Carr dropped in on the cultural classes. Dodgers Lou Johnson and John Roseboro lent their signatures to the inner-city baseball bats. Marge Champion taught dance, Raymond St. Jacques tutored actors and several business magnates sat on the boards of quickly formed nonprofit organizations.

“You just cannot imagine how exciting it was,” said James Taylor, a Watts resident who was director of a performing arts group called the Mafundi Institute. “Everyone was coming down here, holding classes, helping, checking it out. We built our own building with our own stage. Instead of being out on the streets, kids would come here after school to take part in what we were doing or just hang out.”


Not all the programs disappeared. The Watts Labor Community Action Committee still oversees several jobs programs, the Inner City Cultural Center produces plays, and the Watts Towers Arts Center conducts a variety of classes.

A few evolved into other concerns--the baseball bat effort became a furniture company, and the Studio Watts Workshop, which once offered a variety of arts classes, spawned a housing project.

Now, after the recent riots, new programs to create jobs and enrich lives are being proposed. The President visits South Los Angeles to declare that new programs are on the way. Peter V. Ueberroth is calling for new partnerships between the public and private sectors. Adolfo Nodal, general manager of the city’s Cultural Affairs Department, has begun planning an Arts Recovery Program.

Those in the black community old enough to remember the aftermath of the Watts riots have heard much of this before. They remember the excitement the programs temporarily brought and the despair that returned.

Each effort left its own legacy. Here is a look at a few.

The idea came to Norm Hodges with all the wallop of a home run.

An avid baseball fan and aggressive professional seeking change, Hodges decided to put young men to work making baseball bats in post-riot Watts. He would get funding, endorsements, equipment and take on the established East Coast bat manufacturers from a leaky old building in Watts.

“We hired guys from the streets, guys from the jails, guys that couldn’t be employed anywhere else,” recalled Hodges, 58, who heads a housing program for the poor in Kansas City, Kan. “The joke was you had to have 30 arrests to start.”


Soon, the Green Power Foundation was set up with private donations and the first Watts Wallopers began coming off the lathe.

They were sold for $2.74 each and were given away as a promotion to Little Leagues, neighborhood associations and even the Dodgers training camp. But soon word got out that the rickety bats cracked in half with even the lightest impact. Even the employees joked that a heavy swing would damage a Walloper. Ever resourceful, they got rid of the inventory by mounting the bats on plaques and selling them as souvenirs for $10 a pop.

“We didn’t last long,” Hodges said, “but in the short time we were around we got young men off the streets.”

And when the bat company dissolved, numerous other efforts followed. One, Golden Oak Furniture, still sells its wares on 48th Street, not far from the old bat factory.

That many post-riot groups did not make it did not surprise Grace Payne, a longtime resident of Watts who heads a group that predates 1965, the Westminster Neighborhood Assn.

“There was a lot of attention in Watts but it was a lot of verbal attention and paper attention and not real attention,” she said. “Everybody was so concerned about Watts. They were going to do so much. They drew up all these plans. And then life went on.”

James Taylor still goes to work at the building on 103rd Street that was once the headquarters for the Mafundi Institute, one of the most vibrant of the performing arts institutions that sprang from the riots.

“We had a drama workshop and a filmmaking workshop,” said Taylor, 61, who was the institute’s first director. "(Choreographer) Marge Champion gave the money to put in a dance floor and brought her friends in to teach. Marla Gibbs (later to star in “The Jeffersons” and “227") was in plays here and so was Roger Mosley, long before he was on ‘Magnum P.I.’ ”


Mafundi was one of several projects that the late J. Alfred Cannon, a UCLA psychiatry professor, helped to start. “Dr. Cannon thought that social and economic reforms would not work unless people had self-worth,” Taylor said. “He thought that the way to do that was through the arts.”

Named for the Swahili word for artisan, the organization was born in a burned-out clothing store. “We only had to clean it up and pay about $100 in rent,” Taylor said.

The group, which aimed to train community residents for arts-related jobs, soon found itself a prime candidate for federal funds. The Model Cities Program provided the money to construct a building. Support also came from the Charles F. Kettering Foundation.

Taylor left the group in 1970. It had deteriorated, he thought, because of a lack of sustained funding and divisiveness. In 1975, one of the resident theater companies was banned from the building and staged its performances in the parking lot.

When the institute disbanded, the building was taken over by a social services agency. It rents space to several businesses, including the Watts United Credit Union where Taylor works.

“The stage is still here,” he said. “I get nostalgic every time I see it.”

Taylor believes that the biggest mistake the group made was not to put aside some of its funds. “You have to have a contingency plan for when the donations dry up,” he said. “You have to make investments, start an endowment fund.”

When Barney Mull was murdered in Long Beach in June, 1981, the police news release was three sentences long: A white male was found dead in a van. He had been stabbed repeatedly. The apparent motive was robbery.

But Mull’s death hit hard in Watts.

A tireless youth worker, Mull started The Young People of Watts Inc. soon after the fires of 1965 were out. The organization, housed in a natty storefront on South Wilmington Avenue, rounded up children and put them to work cutting lawns, building picnic benches and painting over graffiti.

Once described as the “most popular guy in Watts,” Mull’s place became a community hangout and a launching pad for young adults on the road to real jobs. He started out with $230 and with the help of businessman Earle Jorgensen developed an operating budget of more than $100,000 a year.

The organization did not die with Mull’s unsolved murder. It is still there on Wilmington Avenue, a place where young locals gather to work. The new director is Robert Saucedo, who started out under Mull cutting lawns.

“Burn, Baby, Burn,” was the chant of the day as fires leveled building after building in Watts. In the window of a job-training and education center on Central Avenue, however, there was a sign with a different message: “Learn, Baby, Learn.”

Louis Smith, who would later die in a car accident, borrowed $1,000 soon after the riots, rented an old auto parts building and set up Operation Bootstrap. Designed to teach others to get along without government help, it shunned federal anti-poverty money.

With black pride as its credo, the group developed the Shindana Toy Factory to make black toys. It reached out to Mattel Inc., which donated money, lent doll molds and served as advisers to the fledgling enterprise.

Operation Bootstrap fizzled in subsequent years as sales dried up, fewer teachers volunteered to hold classes and fewer donations came in. But its idea that black children need toys that look like them caught on with more established toy manufacturers.

“The whole country was focused on Watts,” said Truman Jacques, who was active in several jobs programs during the post-riot reconstruction. “Operation Bootstrap and all the other groups accomplished a lot when they were around. But then the attention met red tape, bureaucracy and the general malaise that always sets in.”

Los Angeles is the movie capital of the world, but only if you live in the right neighborhood. Before the riots, Watts did not have a motion picture theater.

“Tom Bradley came to us and asked if we could find a way to show movies in Watts,” said Bruce Corwin, now president of Metropolitan Theater Corp., a movie-house company that has been in his family for 70 years.

In 1965, Corwin was just out of college and Bradley was a city councilman. A committee they formed arranged to use the 1,200-seat Markham Junior High auditorium. They painted the back of the stage white for use as a screen, got projection equipment donated and raised funds to cover expenses, such as a costly insurance policy.

“They laughed at us when we tried to buy insurance in Watts,” Corwin said.

Movie studios provided first-run films for free. Admission was set at 25 cents. “There had to be some minor charge,” Corwin said. “If you don’t pay for something, you don’t appreciate it.”

The Watts Movie Theater opened on July 16, 1966, with “Harper,” starring Paul Newman. It was a sell-out, Corwin said.

But within a year attendance had seriously declined. He arranged for the theater to move to a smaller auditorium in the building used by the Watts Writers Workshop. Attendance still lagged.

“The best we could determine was that the people wanted to get out of the ghetto to see their entertainment,” Corwin said. “If you live in a depressed area, you want to get out of it for something that is fun and recreational.”

The final show came about four years after opening night.

Corwin said he will try to put together another group to show movies in South Los Angeles. “Black ownership is the key, I think, to make it work this time,” said Corwin, who is white. “Outsiders will help set it up and then black owners should operate and own it.”

“I’m 52, now,” he said, “and I look back at what we did in Watts as one of the highlights of my life.”

Formed after the riots, the Watts Labor Community Action Committee has developed a steady stream of low-income housing, job programs, youth activities and programs for senior citizens over the years. Financed by government grants, the union-backed anti-poverty organization headed by Ted Watkins has grown into a major force in Watts.

It is known as the place to go for food stamps, furniture, jobs or free rides to the doctor. Many of the homes in the neighborhood were built with community action committee funding and the committee also runs a homeless shelter and a housing project for senior citizens.

When riots returned to Los Angeles this year, the labor group was not spared: Its headquarters was leveled by fire.

Watkins’ daughter, Teryl, who is an administrative assistant for the committee, said she and her father know they will have to act quickly to rebuild. They know from experience that the public outpouring will fade.

James Woods started the Studio Watts Workshop a few months before the Watts riots.

“The support came from my wife and I,” said Woods, who had a degree in business from USC and worked at a bank. His wife was a probation officer. “I formed it with eight other artists because I felt that the arts could be a tool for social change.”

After the riots, Woods was able to take advantage of the attention focused on the area. With donations, the group provided training for about 150 students in visual arts, music, dance, drama and writing.

One of the studio’s best-known projects was an annual Chalk-In, held on a blocklong section of sidewalk on 103rd Street. Youngsters drew on the sidewalk and their pictures were judged in competition. “It was public art for kids,” said Barnette Honeywood, who at age 16 participated in the first Chalk-In in 1968. She is now artist-in-residence at Spellman College in Atlanta.

“We were all beaten out by this 12-year-old kid, Richard Wyatt,” she said.

Wyatt, who won the first prize of $300, went on to become a prominent muralist in Los Angeles. His best-known work is the 88-by-26-foot “Hollywood Jazz” mural outside Capitol Records.

“That Chalk-In prize started me on my career,” said Wyatt, who won with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. “After that I knew that I wanted to be an artist. I put away the prize money for college.”

In 1971, Studio Watts Workshop received a $75,000 Ford Foundation grant to study how the arts could be used in low-income housing projects.

Woods used those funds, plus a Housing and Urban Development grant and other donations, to build a 144-unit complex of rent-subsidized apartments. Studio Watts Workshop became the Watts Community Housing Corp.

“We still had the arts,” said Woods, who is on the board of the corporation. Spaces were set aside in the complex for gallery space, arts workshops and the publication of an arts journal. But in the 1970s, almost all arts activity came to a halt. "(President) Nixon came in and the funds started to be reduced,” he said. “Under Reagan and Bush, it all went.”

Woods said he is trying to persuade the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the complex, to set aside a portion of the rent income for arts programs.

When it finally opened, the young men and women from 1965 Watts were at least middle-aged.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Shopping Center on Grandee Avenue took 20 years to put together as proposal after proposal hit a snag. Stores came to the negotiating table and left. Financing was committed and withdrawn.

Finally, with a gala ribbon-cutting in late 1984, the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency deal was put together and Watts had a corner full of shops.

During this year’s riots, virtually all the stores in the shopping center were looted. But the buildings were not burned and several merchants have said that they will reopen soon.

The community is a little skeptical about other post-riot revitalization efforts, however.

“What I foresee, and I hope it doesn’t happen, is a lot of Band-Aid, quick-fix solutions that don’t have a real foundation--a repeat performance,” said John Outterbridge, who is director of the Watts Tower Arts Center. “We have to guard against that.”

A Response to Watts

Scores of programs, private and government-funded, were begun after the Watts riots. Some are listed below: Name: Brotherhood Crusade Purpose: A fund-raiser for black organizations and an advocate for community causes Status: Started in 1968 and still exists Name: Green Power Foundation Purpose: Entrepreneurial group started by a group of black professionals Status: Formed numerous companies, including a baseball bat manufacturer that failed. A furniture company still exists Name: Inner City Cultural Center Purpose: To produce plays by authors and groups from a variety of cultural backgrounds Status: The original director of the group, C. Bernard Jackson, still oversees its operation. Last year, it moved into the Ivar Theater in Hollywood Name: Interracial Council on Business Opportunity Purpose: Encouraged large companies to team up with small struggling businessmen Status: Lasted from the late 1960s to the early 1970s Name: Job Power Purpose: Started by Westminster Neighborhood Assn. with $1-million federal grant. Designed to teach janitorial work, house cleaning, painting and yardwork Status: Defunct Name: Mafundi Institute Purpose: To build self-esteem through the arts. It housed theater companies and several other performing groups Status: Active from 1967 until about 1975 Name: Management Council Purpose: Umbrella group to coordinate economic revitalization efforts Status: Defunct Name: Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center Purpose: To provide health care to the minority community in a comprehensive, 480-bed teaching hospital Status: Opened in 1972 and still exists Name: Neighborhood Good Guys Club Purpose: A private club started by auto body shop owner Stan Myles to give a dime a week to “good guys.” Grew to 80 members Status: Defunct Name: Operation Bootstrap Purpose: Led race relations seminars and started the Shindana Toy Factory to produce black dolls Status: Lasted from 1965 to the mid 1970s Name: Studio Watts Workshop Purpose: Held classes in visual arts, dance, drama, writing and music Status: Became the Watts Community Housing Corp., which operates a subsidized 144-unit complex. The group occasionally has art exhibitions in the gallery, but no longer sponsors classes Name: Watts Amusement Center Purpose: A brainchild of the late UCLA engineering professor Morris Asimow, it was envisioned as a seven-acre complex mostly devoted to toy cars Status: Never built Name: Watts Community Symphony Orchestra Purpose: The 60-member orchestra gave about four concerts a year in the late 1960s and early 1970s Status: Inactive Name: Watts Health Center Purpose: Organized by the Watts Health Foundation, it opened in 1967 and provides medical services, job training and health classes Status: Survived financial troubles in the mid-1980s and treats thousands of cases annually Name: Watts Labor Community Action Committee Purpose: A union-backed organization that develops low-income housing, provides job training and offers other community services Status: Still active although some of its buildings were burned during the recent riots Name: Watts Movie Theater Purpose: Backed mostly by movie industry businesses and individuals, it showed first-run movies at low prices Status: Active 1966 until about 1970 Name: Watts Skill Center Purpose: Vocational job-training center created with $2.8-million federal grant by Los Angeles Unified School District Status: Still exists as the Maxine Waters Employment Preparation Center Name: Watts Summer Festival Purpose: Originally begun in 1966 as a memorial to the 34 lives lost in the riot. The festival, which included concerts and a parade, was an annual event into the mid-1980s, when it was canceled on several occasions because of financial troubles and the threat of gang violence Status: The festival was revived in 1990 and was held last year Name: Watts 13 Foundation Purpose: Sponsored poetry readings Status: Inactive Name: Watts Towers Art Center Purpose: Started before the riots, but with funds generated afterward it was able to construct a building. It offers a variety of arts classes and workshops Status: Operated by the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department Name: Watts Writers Workshop Purpose: Screenwriter/novelist Budd Schulberg rented a house in Watts in 1965 and began coaching writers. His was one of the most famous of post-Watts projects and it featured appearances by several well-known performers for readings. A few of the writers in the workshop were published and sold scripts Status: The workshop dwindled in size after Schulberg moved to the East Coast and his successor, Harry Dolan, died. A small group of the writers still occasionally meets Name: Youth People of Watts Inc. Purpose: Put teen-agers to work doing yardwork and painting over graffiti Status: Now run by Robert Saucedo, who graduated from the program