Cornerstone Theater Company


Jordan Downs Transformation by the Decade-1960’s

Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. -Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s opening week! A Jordan Downs Illumination opens this Saturday, May 18th. As we highlight moments of change in Jordan Downs, we have to look at significant cultural movements that impacted the nation, as well as the community.

The 1955 bus boycott of Montgomery, Alabama was a world away to the people of Watts. On the surface, Los Angeles was far more progressive than its Southern counterparts.

Newly arrived Jordan Downs resident Peola Denham and his family. Their passage to California was paid for by the White Citizens Council of Louisiana.

But in 1964, the people of California, including budding political star Ronald Regan, supported a measure that rescinded fair housing laws, in support of property owners who wished to discriminate against minorities.

If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so. – Ronald Reagan

The industrial jobs that had come with the war, left with the war. Many groups left Jordan Downs, moving to areas with more opportunity for work. But housing restrictions prevented Blacks and other minorities from moving. This economic tension, coupled with frequent interactions with the police, boiled over on August 11, 1965.

Aerial view of Watts August of 1965

The Watts Rebellion lasted 6 days. When Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about Watts in his autobiography, he said “The nonviolent movement of the South meant little to them since we had been fighting for rights which theoretically were already theirs…What we witnessed in the Watts area was the beginning of a stirring of a deprived people in a society who had been by-passed by the progress of the previous decade.”

Martin Luther King Jr. reads about Watts

He went on to say that LA should have seen the uprising coming, “when its officials tied up federal aid in political manipulation; when the rate of Negro unemployment soared above the depression levels of the 1930s; when the population density of Watts became the worst in the nation, and when the state of California repealed a law that prevented discrimination in housing (King, Beyond the Los Angeles Riots).”

Protests in Watts

In this recorded conversation with President Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr. calls Police Chief William Parker “rude” and claims that neither he nor Mayor Yorty are sensitive to the issues that caused the riot and are unwilling to make any concessions in order to find a resolution.

This was no surprise to the residents of Jordan Downs or the community of Watts as a whole. They knew that if a change was going to come, they would have to initiate it themselves. What blossomed in the wake of the Watts Rebellion was a movement of art, education and creativity that centered the community in a positive light.

Early meeting of the Watts Writers Workshop

Groups like the Watts Writers Workshop nurtured a generation of artist activists. Founding members like Budd Schulberg, Guadelupe de Saavedra and Jordan Downs resident Johnie Scott, banded together in a collective voice.

The Watts Prophets, co-founded by Jordan Downs resident Amde Hamilton, rapped poems over African rhythms in an early form of hip hop.  

What started off as an explosion, blossomed into a creative movement that would carry into the next decade. The community of Watts was ready for change and they used their art to fight for social justice.

The Watts Writers Workshop hosts Robert Kennedy

What is the role of the artist when it comes to social justice? Should art discuss things like politics and social justice? Or is art for art’s sake enough? Does the artist have any obligation to their community? Share your thoughts in the comments!

This blog series was created by Lindsay “LJ” Jenkins, A Jordan Downs Illumination Producing Associate. The material within these blogs was collected during the creation of A Jordan Downs Illumination premiering May 17-26, 2019 at the Jordan Downs Recreation Center in Watts. CLICK HERE to find out more and purchase tickets.