As a small child my perception of
African-Americans was that they served white people - they cooked, cleaned, and
did things upper class white people rarely did. There were no African-Americans
in my school. As a young boy I had no idea where they lived or where they came
from. They were just present when needed. No one in my family ever discussed
them. African-Americans did not attend our theaters nor did I ever see them in
restaurants. They did not shop in our stores nor use our banks. Only from time
to time would I see an African-American on a bus or even in a car on LA’s
Westside. They were never at the beach in Santa Monica, or Malibu. This was
1950's -1960’s Los Angeles, California, not the South.
To my family, to me, to my friends, African-Americans were invisible. There was
no talk of "those Ni**ers," or anything like that. I never even heard
the word "Ni**er" until I was 14. I remember that when I first heard
it I was more puzzled than shocked.
were among white people like cars -
something to be used, someone that was to do those jobs we didn't do for
I was only part white. My mother was
Native American and passing as “white”.
There was a short news piece on TV.
It was something about "Negro civil rights," and about segregation.
"What's se-gra-ga-tion, Mom?" I asked, truly puzzled.
"It's a set of laws to keep
Negroes in their own area, like a Chinatown of sorts" my mom answered.
"Why do we do that?" I
asked even more puzzled.
"It's just the way things are
done down south," she answered.
I was now starting to get a picture,
"Mom, do we do that here in California?"
"Oh no, we don't have laws like
that," she answered with a high-pitched moral tone in her voice.
"Mom, then why is it all white people
where we live?" I asked with lots of concern in my voice.
"It's different here, Donnie,
Negroes want it this way. We don't force them to do anything in
And with that my Mom ended our
conversation. My mom was acting a bit bothered. Now I was slowly pulling it all
together. In the South white people are truthful, in the West we lie! That
"lie" nagged at me.
I wanted to know about segregation,
the South, integration, and about all the stuff on TV and radio which was now
becoming a daily news event. I started to ask questions of any Black domestic I
could find. At first all I got were meek, side-stepping answers or mean glares,
or "Your questions are going to free me right out of a goddamn
motherfucking job!" I was total in my need to have my questions answered.
More than once I was told to "Go away, get!" But slowly a few people
opened up and shared with a little boy they’re deep hurt, frustration, and
anger. Their stories of injustice made me angry about my own country, about our
race laws, and mostly about a seemingly good people left out of society. I was
angry at my mother's refusal to see how things really were for other Americans.
In reality we were hiding in the white shadows of Los Angeles.
I watched Martin Luther King's march
on Washington and was thrilled. I saw that there were thousands of people
hungry for freedom and justice. I was excited.
In November John Kennedy was
murdered. That ended up being a long week in front of the TV. We were all
shocked. America was a sad place. I was an angry boy.
I was ashamed African-Americans were
ignored and their feelings never even thought about nor given any concern. I
understood feeling voiceless and being ignored. Never was this to be the case
again. The fire of a newly found social consciousness was burning inside of me.
The kettle was starting to boil.
I began taking bus trips to the
University of Southern California and the Los Angeles County Museum in
Exposition Park next to USC. That area of town was beginning to become African-American,
and I felt very exotic as a "White" in a mixed-race environment. The
Saturdays I went to the museum I would get on the Vermont Street streetcar.
Most of the times I got on the streetcar there was the same old Black lady
sitting behind the driver with bags on the floor in front of her. We got to
know each other over a few months. Her name was Opal May Robertson. She was
born in 1884.
She told me what it was like growing
up poor as a share-cropper's child in Texas, about living on beans, greens, and
cornbread and only going to school through the 3rd grade. As a child she only
wore shoes part of the year, and they were always hand-me-downs. Her family
ended up being pushed off their land and they became "Pickers,"
cotton pickers from morning until night. Opal had nine sisters and brothers all
helped with work. One Saturday a white lady came into the little shack of a
house where the children were doing chores. The big kids were watching the
small ones. The white lady told the children that their parents died in a wagon
accident. Opal could not even remember any funeral. There were no relatives who
could take the children. The brothers and sisters were separated and never saw
one another again. Opal ended up working for a white family in the next county.
They moved to California and took her with them. The man of the family was a
railroad supervisor. Opal took the white family's last name as her own.
Opal would recount out loud all the names of her brothers and
sisters and did so very slowly for me more than once. The names were recited as
if she were reading holy writ. “Daniel, Martha, John,….”
Opal decided she was going to get an
education and finished her high school education. She was the only Black
allowed in a night school course in Los Angeles at that time. During World War
II she worked in a war plant and made good money. "Those was good times
for Negroes in LA," she said with great pride. After the war she was fired
from her job and went back to work as a maid for a white family. She never had a
family of her own and in 1964 she was alone and living in a rooming house, by
herself on South Vermont Street. "Good things will be coming now.
Freedom's, coming now," she said with deep warmth on her face. "Oh
Martin (Luther King) he knows us and the white man. He'd do it and we'd all do
it." She smiled. She looked earnestly at me and said, "You go’ in to
see da' day too. But not me, I be too old now. But it's go’ in to be here, one
day!" She pressed her hand on mine, "It'd be love that will keep us
all, God's love." I just stared at our hands pressed together and never
forgot it. I helped her off the streetcar. I tried to take her bags for her.
"It's OK, I be do’ in dis' all my life. You be a good boy now and get
"I'll be back soon," I
"You be back this way again,
but not fo' me, fo' som'thing else. You'd be anxious fo' good things."
I walked down the street towards the
County Museum. I never saw Opal again.
Opal was right. I became really
anxious for good things. I wanted to be in the forefront of a movement to make
things right. I saw injustice as an illness that could be fought in the same
way we cured polio. I felt if one was not a part of the solution then you
became part of the problem. I was going to try and be part of the solution.
I participated in my first civil
rights march a few months after last seeing Opal. I was just a kid. There were
thousands of people from all classes, nationalities, and religions. The civil
rights pin I bought at the march was of a black and white hand clasping, and on
it was inscribed:
I felt it was Opal and my hand
clasped together. I placed it over my heart and 45 years later I still have
In 1965 I started as a new and
unusually young participant in the struggle against racism and war. I was a
youthful and strong-minded boy on a mission to help create a new world. I was
to join the WEB du Bois Club (Socialist), and Students for a Democratic Society in
a search for the answers of peace and freedom. I found in radical politics a
sense of freshness, vibrancy, and idealism lacking in American politics. I felt
there was a world to gain. To this day I am proud of the effort I made, and
hold dear the ideals we saw as possible. I still believe Socialist values are
attainable, and I still Struggle along with the masses.
little rebellion now and then, is a good
thing, and is necessary I
the political world as storms in the physical."
Jefferson - 1787