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c. 1966

A year after the riots, the young men of Watts

A LIFE photographer finds color in the wake of destruction

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Portrait of a group of teenagers (and several pre-teens) as they walk along train tracks in the Watts neighborhood, Los Angeles, California, July 1966. (Photo by Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Photo by Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

To many, the August 1965 Watts Riot (also known as the Watts Rebellion) in Los Angeles was the precursor to the unrest that would follow in the 1960s.

What started as a routine traffic stop of two African American men by two white cops quickly accelerated into fighting, protests and looting that left 34 people dead. More than 3,500 people were arrested and nearly 1000 buildings were destroyed.

One year later, LIFE magazine sent photographer Bill Ray to California, to cover both the Hells Angels of San Bernardino and the young men of Watts, an interesting pairing of assignments.

“I did not try to dress like them, act like them or pretend to be tough,” he reminisced decades later. “I showed great interest in them and treated them with respect.”

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What he remembered about Watts was the style, despite the destruction.

“Watts had a lot of color, on the walls, the graffiti, the way people dressed,” he remembered.

Portrait of a group of young men as they sit and listen to a portable transistor radio on the sidewalk in front of the Watts Towers, a massive 17 tower structure in the Watts neighborhood, Los Angeles, California, July 1966.
Bill Ray/LIFE/Time Inc/Getty Images
Three teenagers, one with a radio, look up at the Watts Towers.
Bill Ray/LIFE/Time Inc/Getty Images
Bill Ray/LIFE/Time Inc/Getty Images
Portrait of a group of teenagers (and several pre-teens) as they walk along train tracks in the Watts neighborhood.
Bill Ray/LIFE/Time Inc/Getty Images
Teenagers hang out in front of the Westminster Neighborhood Association on Beech Street in Watts.
Bill Ray/LIFE/Time Inc/Getty Images
Bill Ray/LIFE/Time Inc/Getty Images
Bill Ray/LIFE/Time Inc/Getty Images
Bill Ray/LIFE/Time Inc/Getty Images
Bill Ray/LIFE/Time Inc/Getty Images
Bill Ray/LIFE/Time Inc/Getty Images
Bill Ray/LIFE/Time Inc/Getty Images
Bill Ray/LIFE/Time Inc/Getty Images
Bill Ray/LIFE/Time Inc/Getty Images
Children play in a rubble-strewn lot left in the wake of the riots.
Bill Ray/LIFE/Time Inc/Getty Images
Bill Ray/LIFE/Time Inc/Getty Images

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