WATTS (CBSLA.com) — It was August 1965 when a young black man was arrested by a white police officer, triggering a violent revolt on the streets of Watts.
That revolt, which came to be known as the Watts riots, was prompted by a multitude of reasons, including high unemployment, poor police relations and an isolated community with a lack of basic health services.
At the end of six days, 34 people died, more than 1,000 were injured and $40 million in damage was done to the community.
Despite this, there was one woman who kept hope alive. Her name is Alice Harris, but most know her as Sweet Alice.
In her early years in Watts, Harris was a beautician working out of her home.
The woman who would become Watts’ most vocal activist was there when the riots broke out in 1965.
“We walked down to 103rd Street, and blood was running down the stream like water,” she said. “They killed a lot of people that night.”
In describing the scene, Harris said there were shots fired all night long.
“We had a curfew that not in the yard, not on the porch, inside the house and the door had to be closed. If a door was open, they were gonna shoot up in there,” she said. “You had to have your shades down. If the shades weren’t down, they gonna shoot up in the house.”
Harris and her son, Robert, took CBS2’s Pat Harvey back to where they were 50 years ago when the Watts riots broke out.
“This unit right here,” said Robert in describing where they lived. “We was upstairs, and bullets was flying all over the place and that’s what I recall.”
When the riots finally ended, Harris vowed she was not going to move, but improve. She went on to form the organization Parents of Watts, providing parenting classes, job training, and help for the mentally ill and homeless.
For Harris, it was about fixing the community she loved.
“We don’t have no stores. Still don’t have stores,” she said. “We ain’t where … we sure ain’t where we used to be. That’s a long ways. We have medical facilities. We have the black and brown walking together and going to school together.”
Harris has met and been honored by every president since the early /70s, and at the age of 81, she’s not slowing down. She says there are more changes to come.
“I want to see a Boys and Girls Club here,” she said. “I don’t want the young men to go back fighting the young police officers.”
“We can say Watts now. We used to couldn’t say. We used to would not say. ‘Say, where you live?’ ‘L.A.’ ‘Now where you live now?’ ‘Watts,’ because we have changed,” Harris said. “Now, we got a high school. Charles Drew Medical Magnet High School. I started that in my front yard.”
Through the ashes of the civil unrest 50 years ago, Harris and her crew continue to rebuild Watts one street at a time.
On Friday morning, Harris will be at the opening of another institution she has helped to bring back to Watts: the return of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital.
For a list of events taking place in the Southland in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Watts riots, click here.