© by Lise Pearlman 2018
West Oakland was a tinderbox long before the Black Panther Party came into being — a ghetto suffering from two decades of high unemployment, overcrowded housing and heavy-handed policing. The black community considered patrolmen an occupying army. The situation was far from unique in urban America. In August 1965 devastating race riots had raged for days in the Watts area of Los Angeles. In their aftermath, President Johnson sent experts from Washington to tour ghettos across the country. They concluded that Oakland was likely “the next Watts.” Why?
Lawyer Amory Bradford was a key member of the team of experts sent to Oakland by the Economic Development Agency. In his book Oakland’s Not for Burning, he noted that national media had already zeroed in on Oakland as “a failed city plagued by racialized poverty and unemployment” (page 36). A good friend of mine, Oakland native Morrie Turner (1923-2014) helped explain the city’s history of race relations for our film project and my book. The son of a Pullman porter, Morrie grew up before World War II in a harmonious mixed-race, working-class neighborhood on which he later based the first integrated comic strip, “Wee Pals.”
As Bay Area industries geared up for the war effort in 1941, traditionally stable black-white relations began to change for the worse in a hurry. Roosevelt avoided a major civil rights protest by issuing Executive Order 8802 in 1941, forbidding discrimination on grounds of race, color or national origin in hiring workers for the national defense program. Kaiser Shipyards then recruited heavily in the South, encouraging a mass migration of blacks. Many poured into neglected neighborhoods in West Oakland. By 1945, four times as many blacks were counted in the official Oakland census as in 1940.
In the 1960s, Morrie Turner worked as a rare black clerk in the Oakland police force. He described most of the officers he worked with as “bigoted”. Once he took a phone message meant for a white co-worker: “The niggers are taking over Oakland.” Historically, a Republican political machine held enormous sway in Oakland and white monopoly power was threatened. Joseph Knowland, the publisher of the city’s long-time newspaper, The Oakland Tribune, was known as “The Power in the Oakland Tribune Tower.” His son, Senator Bill Knowland, took over the reins of the Tribune in 1961. For fifty years, the Knowlands hand-picked most members of the city council and controlled who became mayor. (The paper merged in 2016 into the East Bay Times.)
During World War II the government constructed temporary housing for black shipyard workers and their families near the Navy Yard in Alameda, a nearly all-white town separated from Oakland by the Oakland Estuary. Shortly after the war ended, that government housing was bulldozed, forcing newly unemployed blacks to relocate to West Oakland, which was already overcrowded. The situation only got worse in the 1950s when ground broke for the double-decker Cypress Freeway. It bisected West Oakland and separated it from the city center. East Bay resident Bill Patterson (my former colleague on the Oakland Public Ethics Commission) rose to head Oakland’s Park and Recreations Department (pictured here in the early 1960s). He vividly recalled in his filmed interview what the segregated city was like back in the ‘50s and ‘60s: “The police department . . . if you traveled outside of your sector, you got stopped. Today they have a new name for that — they call it profiling — but it happened back then as a regular thing, because in neighborhoods that were all white, there was fear, you know, of black people. . ..”
On a daily basis Morrie Turner typed up reports for white officers who often claimed that black men “resisted arrest.” He concluded that was a cover story to justify bruises and injuries to arrestees or, occasionally, to explain away their deaths. By 1966, Oakland’s population was over one-fourth black and thirty percent minorites. The divide between police and minority communities was exacerbated by police patrolling in cars rather than walking beats on foot as they had once done. For Mexican-Americans the situation in East Oakland’s flatlands was similar. Future Alameda County Judge Leo Dorado recalls policemen stopping him as a teen riding his bicycle across the bridge to a public beach in Alameda: “I was clearly stopped because I was a brown face from Oakland. . . It was the way it was.”
In the spring of 1966 minorities in both East and West Oakland had a somewhat sympathetic new mayor who promised to listen to their concerns. John Reading’s fellow council members elected him in February of 1966 when the incumbent John Houlihan — a lawyer for The Oakland Tribune — abruptly resigned after being caught embezzling from a law firm client. Mayor Reading promised dubious West Oakland leaders a new “open door” era at City Hall. He candidly acknowledged fears Oakland might otherwise “blow.” (pages 122,130). While Oakland remained free of any major incidents in the summer of 1966, riots broke out in San Francisco, Chicago, Brooklyn, Cleveland and Louisville. Widespread riots followed across the country during the “long, hot summer” of 1967 prompting President Johnson to order a blue-ribbon panel to study its root causes. Chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, the commission issued a best-selling book. Nicknamed “The Kerner Report,” it zeroed in on the lack of diversity in police forces across the country as a major problem. The panel placed most of the blame for urban unrest on “[w]hite racism . . . for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.” The panel also criticized the press for reporting the news through “white men’s eyes.” It warned that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal” and proposed more major investments in the nation’s inner cities like the pilot jobs program in Oakland.
Civil unrest was only one national crisis in the fall of 1967. The other was escalating opposition to the war in Vietnam. Leaders in Washington worried about the convergence of mostly white war protesters and mixed-race civil rights demonstrators. Starting in the fall of 1964 when protesters on the Berkeley campus launched the Free Speech Movement (“FSM”), students staged numerous sit-ins, marches and teach-ins. They also plotted to disrupt the arrival of troop trains at the Oakland Army Terminal. During the third week of October 1967, a coalition of Bay Area activists launched “Stop the Draft Week” — several days of massive demonstrations designed to shut down the Oakland Induction Center, one of the largest such facilities on the Pacific Coast. On the first day, some 3,000 protesters blocked the center’s entrance, leading to more than 100 arrests. The following day twice as many demonstrators blocked the doorway and the surrounding streets. An estimated 250 Oakland police, sheriff’s deputies and highway patrolmen dispersed the crowd, spraying mace and swinging batons. Pioneering black TV reporter Belva Davis covered the melee. She knew she was witnessing history: “The Bay Area felt like ground zero in a generational battle for the soul of the country.” (Belva Davis with Vicky Haddock, Never in My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman’s Life in Journalism, Kindle location 1848).
Alameda County’s District Attorney brought conspiracy charges against key planners of the anti-war protest; the county’s top prosecutor D. Lowell Jensen would eventually try them together as “The Oakland Seven.” [Movement on Trial: The Oakland Seven]. A team of three defense lawyers, headed by Lawyers Guild veteran Charles Garry, quickly assembled. The defense team planned to invoke the Nuremberg Principles in their clients’ defense — putting the Vietnam War itself on trial as a crime against humanity.
It was hard to imagine at the time that another Oakland arrest would generate enough coverage and controversy to drown out the noise surrounding the “Oakland Seven,” while pitting the same lead counsel against one another — with the police and establishment on one side, and anti-war activists joined with civil rights protesters on the other. Just two weeks after “Stop the Draft Week” came the spark FBI head J. Edgar Hoover dreaded. The synergy of anti-war and civil rights activists got a powerful boost from a single bloody confrontation in the very same city where the Oakland Seven would be tried – an early morning shootout involving two Oakland policemen and Huey Newton, the co-founder of the fledgling Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. In the summer of 1968, Amory Bradford published his book not in triumph that the federal government’s intervention had averted another Watts, but in guarded hope that Oakland truly was not for burning.
Next week – The Roots of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense
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Lise Pearlman’s latest book just won the American Bookfest 2018 International Book Award for biographies and was named a finalist for both U.S. History and Multicultural Nonfiction! See review in Counterpunch by Jonah Raskin