Martin Luther King in Woodland Hills

Hosted by

This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

A lot of things we know about the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King are remarkable. Yet I managed to be surprised again by something I just learned this morning, online.

Fifty years ago this past weekend, King came to Los Angeles to preach his message of peaceful integration. That alone is not so remarkable.

King's crusade for equality for African Americans relied in part on the financial generosity of Hollywood stars such as Sammy Davis Jr. and the Rat Pack, and of ordinary Christians in congregations all across America.

But in January of 1961, King ventured about as deeply into segregated white Los Angeles as he could find.

He went to the west end of the San Fernando Valley, a place where if any blacks lived then, they were mostly alone.

He delivered two sermons at a small church in Woodland Hills, then spoke about integration at Canoga Park High School.

The valley then wasn't the suburban melting pot we know today, filled with immigrants from Latin America, Korea, Armenia, South Asia.

There were no weekend cricket matches in valley parks in those days. No black Baptist churches. No black students at all in the public schools in the west valley.

And that was no accident of history.

When the wheat fields were first subdivided into yards and suburban homes, the deeds stipulated that the land could never be sold or rented to anyone of African, Chinese or Japanese descent.

Those covenants were also used to limit where Mexican Americans could live. In the first years of Canoga Park, the field workers whose families might have been in the valley for half a century were confined to a section called Cholo Town.

At the time Dr. King came to the valley, it was blacks who endured the most blatant redlining.

Covenants in force after World War II specified that no one could occupy a house if their blood was not entirely that of the Caucasian race.

The deeds spelled out what that meant. No Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Hindu, Ethiopian, Indian or Mongolian could be considered Caucasian.

The Supreme Court didn't rule such restrictions as un-American until 1948, when the American rush to the suburbs was fully on.

And even then, very little changed.

Real estate brokers and lenders in the valley enforced the old way, refusing to let blacks live anywhere outside the community of Pacoima.

So this was the setting that King found when he accepted a white pastor's invitation to visit in 1961.

He gave two sermons that morning at the Woodland Hills Community Church. It was a United Church of Christ congregation that began in converted Army barracks after the war.

The place was packed, some who were there recalled on Sunday, when Dr. King's visit was remembered with a special service and ceremony.

Nobody remembers any racial incidents, at the church or the high school, but it's not like there's any media reporting that survives.

I checked the LA Times historical archives, and the only mention was a short item a few weeks earlier saying that King would be there.

The Daily News of Los Angeles has posted an audio clip of the Canoga Park speech on its website. That's what I heard this morning.

That deep, calm voice can be heard ringing through the years, from the San Fernando Valley just as it does from Mongtomery and Selma.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.