In February 2011, I was honored to be asked to be one of the speakers at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles (CAAM) in their conversations program focusing on journeys, issues and insights of individuals. I shared my life story, in brief, as part of their Black History Month program. This year, I was asked to share my civil rights experiences with the black students at PCC on February 26, 2013.
It’s always surprising to me when I get an invitation to speak, since it doesn’t happen that often, but it usually ends up being a stimulating experience. I consider my life as a normal one for a black man who grew up with three siblings and both parents in California’s Jim Crow Bakersfield. I call it Jim Crow because, though it is in California, the culture was Southern. Although Texas and Oklahoma are not considered to be in the South like Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Mississippi, that distinction is only geographical. On the map they may not actually be in the South, but culturally the difference was insignificant, as it was truly a distinction without a difference. For those historical purists, Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona could be said to be the Southwest. But if you were black they were all thought to be in the South.
Many of the residents in Bakersfield were whites and blacks from the states of Texas and Oklahoma, who left after the devastation of the Dust Bowl experience in those Southern states. The Dust Bowl was when the winds blew the topsoil off of the farm lands during planting season. With the inability to plant the cotton crops, there was nothing to be picked, weeded or chopped by Blacks and Whites who depended on working the fields for a living.
In Bakersfield there was a town center which, literally, had a circle in the center of town which had a statue of a Catholic priest, which seemed to be the dividing line between the blacks and whites. On the north side of the circle was the town of Oildale, a sort of a suburb of Bakersfield. Oildale was where whites lived and where the big oil companies did business. They discovered oil, pumped oil, sold oil, and got rich while denying blacks jobs in the oilfields because that was way too much money to be made by blacks. There were “sunset signs” in Oildale. Sunset signs said, “N—-rs don’t let the sun set on you in Oildale.” That meant, unless you were a live-in maid, you better be out of the town of Oildale before dark. This was Bakersfield in the 40’s 50’s, and possibly in the 60’s.
East of the circle were towns like Delano and Wasco where agriculture was the industry. Blacks and Mexicans were welcome, so they could pick potatoes, cotton, and a myriad of other crops at slightly above slave wages. As a note, Delano was where Cesar Chavez made a stand to unionize farm workers, much to the dismay of the rich farmers.
I mentioned the statue in the town circle, Padre Garcia was his name, I think. I have long since forgotten why Padre Garcia, was standing there, except to the Mexicans and blacks who attended Catholic School. However, that statue and that circle, Garcia Circle, should be a lesson for educators and whites who ponder why black students fall behind in public school. Think about it for a moment. If you were black and had to go to school for twelve years to learn how great the white man was, from George Washington in America, to Napoleon in France, and never a mention of who you were, except that your ancestry began and ended with slavery, how would you feel about your ancestors and yourself, and how motivated would you be to learn what they taught your class that you were derived from Africa and Africans were savages?
The teachers also taught us to hate the “Indians” in America. We were taught to be glad that the cowboys “beat” the Indians who were “our enemies”. It would be much later that we learned how whites, all the while they were stealing land, oil, gold, and silver from Africa and America, to the exclusion of the blacks, browns and “red savages.”
The Bakersfield experience demonstrates the need for civil rights in America, not just in Bakersfield. Having been born in Oklahoma, my father would drive us back to Oklahoma during the summer to visit relatives there. We experienced gas stations who would sell us gas but the restrooms were always out of order. We had to find a place in the back of the gas station to take care of our business in a field because we were black. We took plenty of food in brown paper bags because for the two-day trip, we couldn’t eat at the restaurants in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico or Oklahoma.
While attending school in Bakersfield, I was called the N-word, daily, and anyone who called me that had a fight on their hands, so I ended up in the principal’s office on a regular basis. The schools were semi–segregated, but we ended up on the west side of town where the neighborhood school was integrated.
My civil rights experience started with my parents teaching us what the schools didn’t. They taught us the writings of black writers like Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes who wrote, “De Pathy” (black dialect for “The Party”). Later, my uncle Arthur taught me about the writings of James Weldon Johnson who wrote, “The Negro National Anthem”. My parents and uncle attended segregated schools in Oklahoma. They were taught by black teachers who taught them the works of black writers as well as white writers like Kipling and others. We also learned in Sunday School and at Saturday Sunshine Band where we had to read and memorize speeches and recite them in speeches and plays. That was real civil rights.
My mother owned a second hand store where she sold clothing, furniture and other items. We worked at the store, so we didn’t have to suffer the indignities of Blacks who had to run the elevators, and work as janitors at stores where our white classmates worked as salespersons. We were exposed to blacks who were self employed. I worked at my uncle’s shoe shine stand. Another example of civil rights.
At seventeen, I graduated from high school and headed for barber college. Destination: independence. After barber college, I worked in my own barber shop at age twenty. Again, self employment was my civil rights.
At age 24, my uncle Arthur and his friend, Gabriel Solomon, Bakersfield’s only black lawyer, imposed upon me to become the first black to run for the school board. At the time I didn’t realize the significance, but the campaign brought blacks and liberal whites together for what was probably Bakersfield’s biggest civil rights battle at the time. The other was marching to integrate the Woolworth’s lunch counter.
I ran in 1964 and lost but got more votes than anybody had ever gotten before. The white conservatives were determined to keep blacks out of public office and came out in droves. The campaign inspired me to want to be like Gabe, the lawyer, and so I and my wife and first young son packed up and headed to Los Angeles so I could go to law school, since there was not even a four year college in Bakersfield. My aunt ran for office four years later and became Bakersfield’s first African American on the school board.
In Los Angeles, I ended up at Pepperdine where there were no Black Studies classes or professors. I helped to form the first black Students Union and was elected president. By the time I graduated, we had a black professor, Calvin Bowers, and black studies classes. I consider that was a civil rights experience, too.
After graduating Pepperdine in 1968, the same year that Dr. King was killed, I entered law school, and also worked in the Equal Employment and Affirmative Action office of Hughes Aircraft. My job was to get blacks into departments where they had not been hired before. I was told that if I did the job right (by getting blacks hired), I would have a short career. I lasted two years before being fired. Hopefully, I was instrumental in integrating the Hughes work force.
Two years after being fired from Hughes, I passed the bar and used the Equal Employment and Affirmative Action experience to begin practicing law in the employment field. My secondary emphasis was police abuse. Again, my experience helped. While at Pepperdine, I was a victim of police abuse by the LAPD in my senior year. I was beaten, arrested, and charged with felony battery on a police officer. The case was false and dismissed after a preliminary hearing. I was blessed to have a family who could afford to hire a good lawyer (Charlie Lloyd) to represent me.
Over the last thirty years, since passing the bar in 1982, I have continued to practice both police abuse, and employment law as well as criminal defense and personal injury. If the false charges by the LAPD had stuck, my life would have been very different than it has over the past 30 years.