Tommy Jacquette: Legendary L.A. Activist Succumbs
He kept the Watts Summer Festival going for over four decades making it an expression of the Black Cultural Experience.
By Kathy Williamson
Anyone who has known or has ever worked with Tommy Halifu Jacquette, whether it be family, friends or peers, will surely describe him as a warrior. In fact, Halifu means “warrior” in Swahili.
Our warrior made his transition at his home on Monday evening, at about 7:11 p.m. His daughter, Denise Jacquette McFall, was at his side when he took his final breath as he succumbed to cancer.
Tommy was one of those unsung heroes who simply “did the work.” His passion was to uplift his community by focusing on the good and building upon it.
Such is his commitment to Black people and, in particular, the community of Watts.
Tommy was born in Los Angeles on December 13, 1943 to his parents Raymond Jacquette and Addie Young. He was the eldest of six children. He grew up in the Imperial Courts in Watts and attended local schools. He is survived by his mother, Addie Young; one brother; two sisters; six children; twenty grandchildren and two godchildren.
Although best known for his work as executive director for the Watts Summer Festival, Tommy has been intricately involved with the Watts Christmas Parade, Watts Willowbrook Chamber of Commerce, the Watts Gang Taskforce and many, many more organizations and community programs.
Tommy’s commitment to nation building had never waivered. In good times and lean times, the Watts Summer Festival (WSF) has continued for 42 years.
The good times included a sold-out concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1972 for “Wattstax”–the festival’s largest fundraiser.
Tommy greeted the many grand marshals of the Watts Summer Festival parade which included Coretta Scott King, Myrlie Evers, Betty Shabazz, Sammy Davis Jr., Richard Pryor, Sammy Davis Jr., Isaac Hayes, Muhammad Ali, Quincy Jones and a host of elected officials.
The leaner times maintained staunch supporters like Congresswoman Maxine Waters; Councilmembers Janice Hahn and Bernard Parks; Senator Rod Wright; former Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke and so many others.
Rep. Waters said during this year’s festival, “If Tommy had two dimes to rub together, there would be a Watts Summer Festival.”
Each year, Tommy, the WSF board of directors, Pamela Garrett (Tommy’s 5-star general) and a host of volunteers work magic to continue to produce a program that honors both ancestors and culture.
Garrett said, “Halifu valued the need to nurture a connection to our African roots and also the significance of Watts. He naturally drew those people to him that understood that it was vital to keep culture alive, especially in the midst of turmoil–ever moving forward while never forgetting the past.”
Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band have regularly performed throughout the Festival’s history. They returned again this year at the request of Tommy. Wright said, “Tommy was very important because he gave people something to hold on to during the most difficult times. He never quit.”
Tommy’s long-term goal was that the WSF would acquire land to develop an African American tourist attraction to provide a year round culturally based venue with commercial and recreational activities for local residents, as well as for visitors to Los Angeles.
As the struggle continues, so will Tommy’s soldiers, following the path that he cleared.
Services, as well as a memorial planned for members of the community, are pending.
In addition to a special tribute by Congresswoman Maxine Waters, members of the community paid tribute to Tommy with the following remarks:
Congresswoman Laura Richardson: “Tommy Jacquette will forever be remembered and beloved for his unyielding passion for the African American community in Watts and throughout the nation. His loss leaves an enormous void. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and a sea of friends.”
Congresswoman Linda Sanchez: “The passing of Mr. Tommy Jacquette is a loss today to the Watts Community, but his life and his work will continue to live far beyond tomorrow.Â At a time when riots devastated the only community he ever knew, he found a way to bring healing and celebration with the creation of the Watts Summer Festival.
“Tommy made it a priority to remember the Watts Revolt and history will remember him for his efforts. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.”
Danny J. Bakewell, Sr.–Los Angeles Sentinel: “Tommy was truly a community activist who represented a man for all seasons. He knew everybody, he went everywhere. He was fearless, smart and intelligent, and he operated from an Afro-centric perspective. His dedication to the community was what he put above and beyond not only himself but sometimes even his family.
“Tommy pioneered so many things, that any festival that exists including A Taste of Soul, which has become the largest black street festival in the entire city of Los Angeles is no more than an outgrowth of what Tommy did with the Watts Summer Festival. He was a trailblazer and a pace setter, and I’m proud to say that he was my friend, my comrade and somebody that I was able to support in his pursuit of making our community better. We will never be able to say thanks enough to Tommy and his family for letting us have him and his contributions to our community.”
Timothy Watkins–WLCAC: “I have enjoyed knowing Tommy for more than forty years and working with him for more than ten years directly on various aspects of the Watts Summer Festival production. He was one of a few advocates for the community of Watts that was willing to speak truth and power, and I am hopeful that the people who cared about him and respected him will honor him by making a commitment to continue the festival in his honor.”
Ayuko Babu–Pan African Film Festival: “He is living proof of that, that you can turn juvenile gangs around and that you can change the young people who are lost out there in the world; he proved that through his life he was one of those kids. Another thing is that Tommy also was part of the people who said we need to celebrate ourselves and we need to appreciate our selves and what we do as a people, our culture is important because we are significant somebodies, he gave us the energy to believe that ourselves. The last thing is that he was apart of the people who first began to talk about culture and festivals, you now all the festivals whether it be Pan African Film Festival, or the Music Festival or Essence Festival. He was the first and it made us really understand and participate in the cultural diversity that allowed us to know that we had made a contribution to the African American people.”
Khalid Shah–Stop the Violence Increase the Peace Foundation: “He was and continues to be one of the pioneers in the movement to make life better for Black people in Southern California. His leadership will be sincerely missed.”