Chapter Nine Dreams Deferred

By 1964, the local NAACP was plotting lawsuits to force recalcitrant Bay Area businesses to halt discriminatory hiring. But then a new tactic, swifter and more effective, began to catch on: the demonstration. The first big one was against Mel’s Drive-In, a burger joint that served blacks but refused to hire them. Targeting the San Francisco diner — which was co-owned by San Francisco supervisor and mayoral candidate Harold Dobbs — more than one hundred people occupied all the seats, and they refused to order until Mel’s hired blacks. Pickets went up at the diner and at Dobbs’s home. After losing the election, he signed an agreement to integrate hiring for up-front jobs.

At Lucky’s grocery stores, protesters would fill their shopping carts to the brim, unload their contents at the counter, wait until cashiers had rung up every item by hand, and then declare, “I’ll pay for these items when you start hiring Negros!” As checkout registers clogged, shopping ground to a standstill.

At San Francisco’s swank Sheraton Palace Hotel, which employed 19 blacks in only menial cleaning jobs out of a staff of 550, about five hundred demonstrators clasped hands and encircled the hotel inside and out; then they staged a “sleep in” that transformed the lobby floor into a wall-to-wall carpet of protesters. And because the car dealerships that lined “Auto Row” along Van Ness Avenue also hired blacks only as janitors, hundreds of white and black protesters staged demonstrations at both the Cadillac dealership and the Lincoln-Mercury dealership to force a hiring accord.

As challenging as the situation was for blacks, women faced multiple obstacles, especially in media. Although a few females had been working as reporters, columnists, and editors for newspapers, and a handful more as DJs or radio hosts, we mostly were consigned to covering life’s curlicues: fashion, entertainment, society happenings. Whether white or black, females did fluff.

But I knew I wanted more. I felt as though someone had hit the fast-forward button and the world around me was advancing in a blur. I was captivated by the big stories, and I wanted to be a part of them.

One of my entrées was through KDIA news director Louis Freeman, who was stretched too thin doing every newscast and all the station’s field reporting, not to mention its gospel music show. I volunteered to be his “pick-up person,” gathering notes and quotes at Berkeley City Council meetings, community organizing sessions, and the like.

We were in the incubator of a new political consciousness. Tens of thousands of black families such as mine — having deserted Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee and having resettled in California — were discovering the potency of politics. It was heady stuff. Back home, our parents had been unable to even register to vote. Here, not only could blacks cast ballots, but they even could elect a few of their own. California, which had dispatched its first black legislator, Frederick Roberts, to Sacramento in 1917, sent its first black congressman, Gus Hawkins, to Washington in 1963. He would go on to author Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to establish the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

I was acquainted with many of the East Bay’s rising political wizards. Brilliant bon vivant Willie Brown, who would someday dominate state politics as speaker of the assembly and then serve as mayor of San Francisco, was dating a high school friend of mine while both were students at San Francisco State. Future congressman and mayor Ron Dellums was a member of Edith’s “Kitchen Cabinet” and one of her “main horses.” And of course William Byron Rumford, proprietor of my old local drugstore in Berkeley, became a state assemblyman and hometown hero in 1963 after he won enactment of the Fair Housing Bill outlawing discrimination in private housing. The real estate industry and angry white property owners persuaded state voters a year later to amend the state constitution to nullify the act, although ultimately the California and U.S. Supreme Courts would uphold Rumford’s law.

The white backlash was indicative of the growing notion among California whites that we were pushing too far, too fast. As San Francisco human relations coordinator James Mitchell, a former Eisenhower labor secretary, told Time magazine, “What Negroes have to remember is something they tend to forget: that they are a minority, and that they can only achieve what they want with the support of the majority.” White resistance was unmistakable as it whipped through the Cow Palace during the 1964 GOP convention — the experience that solidified my determination to become a real reporter.

*Excerpted from Never in My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman's Life in Journalism by Belva Davis Copyright@2010 by Belva Davis. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from PoliPoint Press the publisher.