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The August 1965 Watts Riots (or Watts Rebellion, depending on one’s perspective and politics), were among the bloodiest, costliest and — in the five decades since they erupted — most analyzed uprisings of the notoriously unsettled mid-1960s. Ostensibly sparked by an aggressive traffic stop of a black motorist by white cops — but, in fact, the combustive result of decades of institutional racism and municipal neglect — the six-day upheaval resulted in 34 deaths, more than 3,400 arrests and tens of millions of dollars in property damage (back when a million bucks still meant something).
A year after the flames were put out and the smoke cleared from the southern California sky, LIFE revisited the scene of the devastation for a “special section” in its July 15, 1966, issue that the magazine called “Watts: Still Seething.” A good part of that special section featured a series of color photos made by Bill Ray on the streets of Watts: pictures of stylish, even dapper, young men making and hurling Molotov cocktails; of children at play in torched streets and rubble-strewn lots; of wary police and warier residents; of a community struggling to save itself from drugs, gangs, guns, idleness and an enduring, corrosive despair.
In that July 1966 issue, LIFE introduced Ray’s photographs, and Watts itself, in a tone that left no doubt that, whatever else might have happened in the months since the streets were on fire, the future of the district was hardly certain, and the rage that fueled the conflagration had hardly abated:
For his part, Bill Ray recalls the Watts assignment clearly, and fondly:
Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com
Bill Ray (at right, on assignment in Sikkim in the Himalayas in 1965) was a staff photographer for LIFE from the mid-1960s until the magazine’s demise in the early 1970s.
Based in New York, Beverly Hills and Paris, he traveled the world covering major events, wars and great personalities, from Elvis Presley and Audrey Hepburn to JFK, Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles, Ray Charles, Frank Lloyd Wright, Brigitte Bardot and many more. See the LIFE.com gallery, “LIFE Rides With Hells Angels.”