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Interfaith service honors those killed in Watts riots

Interfaith service honors those killed in Watts riots
Bishop Guy Erwin of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, far right, says a prayer at an interfaith service marking the 50th anniversary of the Watts riots on Sunday. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

They were as old as 67 and as young as 4 — a firefighter, a sheriff's deputy, innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire.

Fifty years ago this week, 34 people were killed in the Watts riots. During those six days of unrest, more than 1,000 were injured and 200 buildings were destroyed.

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On Sunday, faith leaders from across the city came together to honor those who died in the disturbance. They prayed for South Los Angeles, which continues to struggle with high poverty, low-performing schools and gang violence.

The pastors, rabbis and bishops gathered at 116th Street and Avalon Boulevard, the corner where the riots began on Aug. 11, 1965, after a traffic stop erupted into violence.

Dressed in long, religious robes beneath the warm afternoon sun, they prayed and sang songs. Then they read the name of each victim, sounding a bell before each one:

"Homer Ellis, Albert Flores, Curtis Gaines, Fentroy George, Aubrey Griffin..."

The year after the 34 were killed, it became tradition to honor them at the annual Watts Summer Festival. In 1966, the first anniversary, tens of thousands of people flocked to 103rd Street, where fires once raged and gunfire filled the air.

Sunday's ceremony was quiet and intimate, a precursor to a week filled with events commemorating the 50th anniversary: gospel choirs, symposiums, festivals and church services.

The clergy took turns blessing the street with holy water and sharing their hopes for the area:

"Let these streets be reclaimed as holy," said the Rev. Linda Culbertson with the Presbytery of the Pacific.

"We take back these streets in the name of the father, the son and the holy ghost," said Pastor Rashon Cutcher of El Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.

"Let this water be a sign to us of new life," said Bishop Guy Erwin of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The event was organized by the Los Angeles Council of Religious Leaders. As a few passersby stopped to listen, the council president, the Rev. Jon Bruno of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, told the crowd to push for unity.

"If we don't take action to close the barriers between men and women, between old and young and between people of all ethnicities," he said, "we are failing to do what God has called us to do."

Those barriers, he said, will ultimately hurt the community.

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"They will fall upon us and break us," he said.

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