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Arts & Entertainment

40 years ago, Wattstax festival brought 112,000 African Americans to the LA Coliseum

Rev. Jesse Jackson, with Al Bell on the right, leads Wattstax attendees in reciting
Rev. Jesse Jackson, with Al Bell on the right, leads Wattstax attendees in reciting "I am -- Somebody," William Borders' poem
Courtesy Wattstax

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The story starts in Watts -- ten miles South from the Los Angeles Coliseum -- seven years before festival took place.

Here's a newsreel from the era:

34 people died during the Watts Riots. Thousands more injured. $40 million in damage. But injuries weren't just physical: images of the riots travelled far and wide and gave Watts and its nearby areas a reputation some say it still hasn't lived down.

At the time, Al Bell worked for Stax Records, the Memphis based soul label. He'd eventually become president.

"The idea came from Forrest Hamilton who ran the West Coast office for Stax. To come here and put on a small concert to help draw attention to, and to raise funds for the Watts Summer Festival," said Bell. "To create, motivate, and instill a sense of pride in the citizens of the Watts community."

What came out of that was more than a small concert. On August 20, 1972, Wattstax took over the LA Coliseum. Performers included some of Stax records' biggest names: Isaac Hayes, Albert King, the Staple Singers, Jonnie Taylor. Charging just one dollar a head, the festival brought in 112 thousand attendees and raised thousands of dollars for local causes.

The concert was filmed and released as a movie under the same name--directed by Mel Stuart, the same guy who made Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory just three years prior. Early in the day at the Coliseum, Reverend Jesse Jackson gave a speech. He ended with a poem. 100,000 people joined him in reciting I Am -- Somebody, a poem.

"If you'll notice, it was up on the screen--'I am somebody'--well all those people knew that. When he started, that 112 thousand people were saying with him 'I am somebody.' Well, I get chills saying that to you right now," said Bell. "It caused us to begin to see ourselves differently."

Bell said he was proud of how the festival turned out--despite what he said were security concerns from Los Angeles officials. "You saw the Crips and Bloods sitting side by side--no problems," said Bell. "At that point of time there was a concern that anytime you got more than two black people, there was a reason to be frightened and afraid of that."

Highlights from that day included a performance by the Staples Singers of their hit "Respect Yourself" earlier on in the festival. "That of course was part of the the philosophy that I was trying to get to our people," said Bell, "to respect yourself.

Bell said that while areas like Watts still face troubles, the message of Wattstax is still relevant today. "Forty years later, I hear African Americans in the audience reacting to the same scenes, the same way they did forty years ago."

One of the festival's last performers that night was Isaac Hayes. Here's a video of Hayes performing "Shaft."