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Arts & Culture

The Watts Museum of Civil Rights is a Hidden Jewel

By Shirley Hawkins
Contributing Writer

After the massive devastation caused by the 1965 and 1992 civil unrests, the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), a non-profit community organization, rose from the ashes and reopened its doors to the community by reinstating job and educational training programs as well as community referrals and resources. Founded in 1965 by dynamic community organizer Ted Watkins who passed away in 1993, duties of the non-profit were handed to his son, CEO and president Timothy Watkins. The bustling non-profit remains a cornerstone in the Watts community.

But many Southern Californians may not be aware that the WLCAC houses a hidden jewel–the incredible Watts Civil Rights Museum erected in 1994 that attracts people from all over the world. The museum has been a formidable testament to the resilient history of African Americans through the decades. Deftly capturing the struggles of African Americans from slavery through the Civil Rights movement and beyond. The museum dazzles visitors with its colorful murals, installations, historic photos, and lifelike images that seem torn from the pages of real life.

As visitors pour through the gates, their eyes are first greeted by the towering bronze statue of the Mother of Humanity, a dramatic 22-foot female image created by sculptor Nigel Benns. Draped with a scarf shaped like the continent of Africa and sculpted to depict welcoming arms, Benns created the statue after the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion.

Harkening back to the ruthless slave trade, a sobering surprise awaits visitors who are guided into the dark bowels of a creaking slave ship, an actual facade from the movie The Amistad. Visitors relive the perilous journey of the ship as lifelike sculptures of captive Africans stare balefully back in the bowels of the darkened vessel. The lifelike images transport visitors back through the centuries when millions of Africans were forced to leave the Motherland and make the perilous journey across the ocean to America as well as paying homage to the Africans who lost their lives crossing the Middle Passage.

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A colorful mural depicting community leaders who helped shape and lead Los Angeles are honored in a colorful painting by artist Elliott Pinkney which covers the walls of WLCAC’s Phoenix Hall. Billy Mills, former Los Angeles supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite-Burke, former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, and many others are displayed on the mural, community leaders who helped pave the way for a thriving Los Angeles.

Attendees are then transported back in time to a dusty back road in Meridian Mississippi, the birthplace of the extraordinary WLCAC founder Watkins, who was forced to flee the south in his youth in order to avoid a lynching. The exhibit features a replica of his childhood home, complete with a creaky wooden porch and rocking chair that harken back to his southern roots.

Parked on the side of the road of the Mississippi exhibit is a dusty, abandoned black car, a replica of the vehicle driven by Civil Rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. The trio, who had traveled south to register blacks to vote, went missing and are believed to have been the victims of foul play that spurred an extensive search by the FBI. It was discovered that the three had been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in June 1964. The incident generated international headlines and called attention to the Civil Rights movement.

Visitors are then transported back to the‘50s after stepping into Freedom Hall where they can peruse a prominently displayed red and white diner symbolizing the era when blacks were historically denied service in public establishments. “We were not allowed to sit at lunch counters back then,” said WLCAC tour guide Toni Love. Love recalled that in the early ‘60s, angry young blacks challenged Jim Crow laws by staging sit-ins throughout the south to demand equal treatment and eventually helped to desegregate public establishments.

Visitors are then guided into the Hall of Shame, which contains the history of negative African American images that were plentiful during the 1800 and 1900s, including a Little Black Sambo board game, Darkie toothpaste, slave shackles, photos of Amos and Andy, plates depicting alligators devouring black babies and antique spoons featuring unflattering images of blacks.

“We call it the Hall of Shame which exhibits proof of how American corporations and white supremacists exploited the images of African Americans for profit,” said Watkins.

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“That was sad to see that back then, people made a mockery of us,’’ said attendee Danyel Jackson. ‘’They were making money off of our images.’’

Tourists then tour a real-life replica of the jail cell where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’’ The visitors are then guided into the next room where they can view a replica of King’s flower-enshrined casket. Historic and candid photos of King also line the walls of the room, marking his momentous and amazing journey as a leader of the Civil Rights movement.

A wall of black-and-white photos featuring the Black Panthers at a rally in 1968 captures the turmoil of the Black Power era. The late photographer Howard Bingham deftly captured legendary revolutionaries such as Stokeley Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Ron Karenga, and Huey Newton.

Watkins said that the Watts Civil Rights Museum has been a bone of contention with some visitors. “A lot of people come here, both Black and white. White people have asked, ‘How long are you going to hold us responsible for the sins of our forefathers?’ I say, ‘As long as the descendants of slaves feel the effect of that oppression.’”

Watkins said that many celebrities and institutions have visited the museum. “Shaquille O’Neal used to have his big Christmas and Thanksgiving parties here,” Watkins recalls. “Denzel Washington, Debbie Allen, and Mike Tyson have all visited the museum. Minister Farrakhan had an event here along with Steve Harvey. The Bloods and the Crips had a prayer meeting here and even the Jewish Defense League held a function here,” Watkins recalled.

If you want to spend an educational and enlightening afternoon viewing Black history, the Watts Museum of Civil Rights at WLCAC is worth a visit.

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Individual tours are available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and by reservations on weekends. For reservations, call (323) 563-5639.

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