Wattstax and The Celebration of a Movement

Some of the worst riots in American history occurred over the weekend of August 11-15, 1965. L.A.’s Watts neighborhood had reached a breaking point of racial tension and in one long blur of looting, beatings and commercial fires, the African-American community had finally taken a stand against the brutality of the LAPD. The event was one of many that brought about long-awaited equal rights to blacks across the country. To celebrate the 7 year anniversary of the riots, Stax Records held a benefit concert that they hoped would rival the likes of Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival, complete with a documentary and the cream of the Stax artist roster. On August 20, 1972 Wattstax became the biggest African-American gathering since the March On Washington in 1963.

For $1.00, admission into the L.A. Coliseum afforded you the opportunity to see the biggest stars on the Stax label, all of whom would be performing for free. Capacity was set at 100,000, and at 73,000, the room was moving and swaying to the sounds of Isaac Hayes, Rufus and Carla Thomas, The Rance Allen Group, William Bell, The Staple Singers and many more. This was truly a unique experience; the security force was entirely black, all unarmed. Unlike all festivals previously, all performers were black; despite the resurgence of black music in the 60s, very few black performers were featured at the Monterey Pop Festival or Woodstock. This became a milestone in the fight for and celebration of the civil rights movement. All proceeds from the show went to the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, Martin Luther King Hospital and the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. From the opening notes of “Lift Every Voice And Sing” to the closing song of Hayes’ set, there was joyous dancing, raucous hand-raising and a spiritual force that would rival any southern tent revival.

It all began with Stax and it’s co-owner Al Bell. They had wanted to join forces with the Watts Summer Festival, which had begun in 1966, to showcase the Stax artist roster. What better way to empower the Watts community and the black community as a whole than a gigantic concert, complete with documentary? Stax had been at the forefront of the soul movement for almost 10 years, creating the Southern soul sound to rival the likes of Motown in Detroit. They gave voice to a race that had previously been stifled, and their impact had reached out into the white-washed suburban communities, without compromising the ground work of the music itself. The timing couldn’t have been better for an event of such magnitude.

The documentary used live footage from the concert, plus additional concert footage from other shows around the area, plus “man-on-the-street” interviews with people in the Watts community, putting emphasis on what it was like to be an African-American in the U.S. in 1972. It was nominated for a Golden Globe in 1974 for Best Documentary and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973.

From the ashes of American flags and cinders of man’s oppression can rise the new seeds of growth and progress. As a nation, our history carries the bones of our worst moments. This does not limit what we can do, if we choose to stand up. The Civil Rights Movement brought about the most basic changes that needed to be made; equal rights and treatment for all, regardless of race, creed, age, sex. We will never get it completely right; there will always be stains on the tapestry of time, but we keep moving. Keep standing up, keep celebrating, keep pushing. The fruits of the labor will bring a celebration of kings.

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