How the Civil Rights Movement Worked

Watts Riots, Black Power and MLK's Legacy
Firefighters patrol during the 1965 Watts Riots. Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr.'s main strategy during the civil rights campaign was one of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest, and it worked for most of the movement. Gathering inspiration from the writings of Henry Thoreau and the nonviolent tactics of Mahatma Gandhi, King spent much of the '50s and early '60s successfully campaigning for peaceful change

But in 1965, when actions taken by civil rights leaders and organizers were still heavily protested by racists, often in the form of beatings or worse, some people had just had enough. Malcolm X, assassinated early in the year in February, was leading the Black Power movement, which grew out of the civil rights movement and encouraged blacks to assert their rights more forcefully, sometimes with violence. Marquette Frye and the citizens of Watts, a racially segregated neighborhood near Los Angeles, California, were the first to display this kind of frustration to the nation on a larger scale during the violent Watts Riots.

On Aug. 11, 1965, 21-year-old Frye and his older brother, 22-year-old Ronald, were driving near the predominantly black neighborhood of Watts around 7 p.m. when they were pulled over by California highway patrolman Lee W. Minikus. A black motorist had allegedly informed Minikus that Frye was driving recklessly, so he gave chase, pulled the car over and administered a sobriety test. Frye failed and was placed under arrest for drunk driving.

Because it was a hot night during an unusually hot summer, many people were sitting outside their homes and witnessed the event. A small crowd of about 30 people eventually grew to more than 250. On top of this, Frye's mother, Rena Price, had to come to the scene to claim the car once Frye was under arrest. Once Mrs. Price began scolding her son for drinking, a previously compliant Frye became belligerent, moving toward the crowd and shouting at the officers. When officers pursued him, Frye attempted to run off. The officers gave chase and caught him again, and the crowd became more and more aggressive.

Civil rights leader Andrew Young and others standing on balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., pointing in the direction of the assailant after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who is lying at their feet.
Joseph Louw/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

News of police brutality spread throughout Watts, and the event, combined with the uncomfortably hot weather, cramped conditions and rampant poverty, sparked several riots in the neighborhood over five days. Thirty-four people were killed, and there were 1,032 reported injuries. Of those injuries, 118 were from gunshots. Rioters also caused an estimated $40 million in damage to buildings, mostly from fires and looting. During the five-day stretch, 3,438 people were arrested. Most of the riots were televised, and a nation watched as Watts was reduced to ruins.

The event quickly changed the tone of the movement. When Martin Luther King Jr. visited Watts, people heckled him instead of welcoming him, rejecting his message of nonviolence. When King was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, riots sprang up in several cities around the U.S.

King's death, along with the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy on June 5, reinvigorated the movement, which had begun to falter. Many events King had planned before his death, including the Poor People's March, still took place. King's death ended one chapter of the civil rights movement, but the broader struggle for civil rights still continues. In the decades since King's death, Americans have seen civil rights struggles for the rights of women, the disabled and the LGBT community. And, as many point out, though there have been many gains for African-Americans, there are still strides to be made, particularly in economic equality and police relations.

Related Articles


  • Cozzens, Lisa. "African-American history."
  • Davis, Kenneth. "Don't know much about history." New York: Avon Books. 1990.
  • Davis, Ronald. "Creating Jim Crow." The History of Jim Crow.
  • King, Martin Luther. "Letter from Birmingham Jail." African Studies Center. University of Pennsylvania. April 16, 1963.
  • Warren, Earl. "Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483." Supreme Court of the United States. May 17, 1954.
  • Violence in the city: an end or a beginning? "144 hours in August 1965." University of Southern California.