‘L.A.’s Black Woodstock: Wattstax’

In this excerpt from Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, authors Mike Davis and Jon Wiener recount the biggest all-Black gathering in American history.

set the night on fire, mike davis, jon wiener

From Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties

It was the biggest all-Black gathering in American history: 100,000 people at the L.A. Coliseum in August 1972. The event was not a civil rights rally; instead it was a “celebration of Blackness” on the seventh anniversary of the Watts uprising: the Wattstax music festival. Organized by Stax Records, the Memphis soul label, it featured the Staple Singers, doing a stirring version of “Respect Yourself”; the irresistible Rufus Thomas, wearing a pink cape, pink shorts, and shiny white disco boots, for whom thousands of people poured out of their seats and onto the football field to “Do the Funky Chicken”; and for the finale, the brightest star of Stax and Blacksploitation superstar, Isaac Hayes, wearing gold chains over his naked chest and singing “Shaft”: “Who is the man / That would risk his neck for his brother man?”

It had been a bad seven years for Black L.A. “Charcoal Alley”—103rd Street, seven miles south of the Coliseum—remained in ashes, and some of the main streets around the stadium, especially Vermont Avenue and Broadway, also still had deep scars at sites that had been torched in August 1965. The LAPD campaign to kill the Panthers that had started three years after Watts had been vicious and effective. The effort of liberals to elect a Black mayor, Tom Bradley, had been defeated. In 1972 Sam Yorty remained mayor, and the LAPD continued its reign over the streets.

So the first requirement of the Wattstax festival was that the LAPD wouldn’t be allowed inside the Coliseum. And the organizers, led by Al Bell and Larry Shaw of Stax Records, insisted that the security force inside had to be all Black—and unarmed. Al Bell later said the thing he was proudest of was that there were “no guns. No guns inside. Security with no guns. And no incidents.”

wattstax, jesse jackson, al bell
Reverend Jesse Jackson, with Al Bell on the right, leads attendees in reciting William Borders’s poem “I Am Somebody” at the Wattstax music festival in Los Angeles in August 1972.

Tickets cost $1 for the six-hour festival, which meant virtually all of Watts could afford to go. The event opened with the national anthem, but in the stands virtually no one stood, or sang; most people were talking or just sitting. Then came a speech by Reverend Jesse Jackson. In 1971, the year before Wattstax, he had founded Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) in Chicago. Onstage at the Coliseum, with a big Afro and wearing a dashiki, he declared, “This is a beautiful day.… It is a day of Black people taking care of Black people’s business. Today we are together.… ’Cause when we are together, we’ve got power.” Then he declared, “In Watts, we have shifted from “Burn, baby, burn,” to “Learn, baby, learn.”

Excerpted from Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener, with permission of the publisher, Verso Books.


Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener

Verso Bookshop.org

Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the   Future in Los Angeles, among other books.
Jon Wiener is an emeritus professor of history at UC Irvine.
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