Los Angeles and the Civil Rights Movement

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In 1965 Dr. Martin Luther King came to Los Angeles to speak at UCLA. He told the crowd, “”We shall overcome. And I have faith in the future because I know somehow that although the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends towards justice.”

During  a visit just a few months later, after the Watts riots, he struck a different tone. “I believe and have said on many occasions that violence is not the answer to social conflict–whether it is engaged in by white people in Alabama or by negroes in Los Angeles,” he said.

A new exhibit at the Museum of African-American Art looks at LA’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. Historian Keith Rice is the co-curator of the exhibit. He told KCRW that Los Angeles was home to number of high-profile stars that supported the Civil Rights Movement. Stars like Sammy Davis, Jr., Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando and Paul Newman all supported the movement, mostly by providing financial support. “People who were in the Civil Rights Movement in the South were always going to jail or being locked up, so that money helped support with bail and help get them out of jail.”

Los Angeles was also home to the Western Christian Leadership Conference, an informal group of ministers on the West Coast that worked to raise money as well.

KCRW’s Chery Glaser spoke to Rice about LA’s role in the fight for civil rights, as well as the city’s own segregation.

KCRW: One area that isn’t always so well-known is that in the first half of the 20th century large parts of the area had something that were known as racially restrictive housing covenants. How did these covenants work?

KEITH RICE: Well if you were Chinese Jewish African-American anyone other than white you were restricted to living in certain areas and how they worked is that they would introduce covenants into the deeds or titles of the homes, saying actually that nonwhites could not occupy these these homes- they could not buy them. There were certain boundaries that people could live in.

Until 1948, they used the government to enforce them. Shelley vs. Kraemer in 1948 struck it down and the government could no longer enforce these racial restrictive covenants.

KCRW: For ethnic families in the late ’40s and early ’50s looking to move into communities that up until then had been closed to them – you see some pictures that we tend to associate frankly with other parts of the country. Cases where African-American families in L.A. had crosses burned on their lawns had their homes bombed.

KR: Yes all kind of events. We have an image here in our archives, in might be in the early ’60s, where an African-American family moved into an area and they threw bottles to the window and actually shot through the window.

KCRW: What do you see as the lasting lessons of LA’s role in the early Civil Rights Movement. Does L.A. have a particular role to play for the ongoing push for civil rights, in part because of its tremendous racial and ethnic diversity?

KR: Yes and I think because that that legacy of it being the land of sunshine and everything being ok, and you could come out here and get a fair shake. I think that’s still a myth, because of the diversity. It’s so many different people here. And some groups get overlooked. They get overlooked historically. What you’re reporting on here a lot of people don’t even know existed. And it continues to exist. It’s something that I know the African-American community especially talks about at the kitchen table to this day.