By Joseph Baroud
The American struggle for civil rights and freedom, told through the history of the South Bay, was the focus Saturday at California State University, Dominguez Hills, as the Gerth Archives and Special Collections room hosted the 3rd annual South Bay Symposium.
An array of speakers discussed a range of topics during the event, held on the fifth floor of the south library. The room was decorated with posters created by CSUDH History 341 students dedicated to past events, people and places in the South Bay’s history. These significant figures included Doris Davis, a female African-American, who defeated incumbent Compton mayor Douglas Dollarhide, also an African-American, in 1973, and Juan Dominguez, a former soldier for Spain who received the original land grant from the king of Spain in 1794 that encompasses most of the South Bay, including this campus.
Some posters told of the impact the Rodney King trial with old newspaper clippings and different photographs capturing the intensity of the public’s emotions throughout those times.
The, event, co-sponsored by the Compton Historical Society 125, was hosted by Gregory Williams, the director of the Gerth Archives, and included five speakers: Richard Santillan, the author of books about Mexican-American baseball; Random Lengths News publisher James Allen; Dr. Donna Nicol, the head of the department of Africana Studies at CSUDH; Robert Lee Johnson, who wrote the book “Compton,” which is about Compton’s little-known past; and John Osborne who is on the Lawndale city council. While the speakers’ focus were varied, all spoke about the South Bay, with freedom and civil rights being the common denominator.
Through all the stories, a theme developed: how people often perceived as being outsiders played a huge part in building this country, often through creating bonds between themselves rather than waiting to be accepted by the broader culture.
Santillan alluded to that in terms of using sports to tell the story of Mexican Americans in the South Bay.
Santillan spoke about what it was like to be a Hispanic person living in the U.S. during the middle of the 20th century and how baseball was an oasis to not only help them get through the tough times, but to build an identity and a sense of community.
“From the very beginning we wanted to utilize baseball to tell the story,” he said. “And later softball, to tell the story of the larger community. That the pictures of baseball and softball were being [used as a] vehicle to tell the greater story. How baseball was an instrument to advance things like civil rights and so forth.”
CSUDH’s Nicol emphasized the stresses and pressures of immigrants attempting to forge new lives in the South Bay. She spoke of the hardships that Filipinos endured, not only when they migrated here and experienced laws that were made to impede their lives and obstruct their chance to live peacefully and make families, but abroad as well. She paid attention to the misconception that many Filipino women tried to marry American citizens to gain entry into the country.
“What happened really disproves this notion,” Nicol said. “Because these folks lived outside of the camp and they interacted with each other that way. It wasn’t a sort of I’m going to attach myself to this guy. It was, I work there, and we interact. Most of the time, up until 1960, most of Filipino migration were Filipino men. Part of this was this fear that there would be this rush of Filipino women coming to the United States.”
Allen’s focus was the Workers of the World, or Wobblies as they came to be known, the first labor union not to discriminate on race. He set the mood by quoting from author William Faulkner, who said that the past isn’t dead, it’s not even the past.
“There’s something about the past which is inherently still alive in people every day,” Allen said.
He talked about the LA Times bombing in 1910 and how it was blamed on a couple of socialists, which swayed media representation of socialists to label them as terrorists.
He also spoke about Upton Sinclair, who wrote books like “The Jungle,” to reveal the horrible truth of went on in meat-packing factories. Sinclair, a socialist, ran for California governor in 1934.
Allen described a 1923 incident in which Sinclair came to San Pedro to rally with the Workers of the World union at Liberty Hill. Sinclair went atop a dirt mound and held a copy of the U.S. Constitution in the air. As soon as he began reading the article regarding free speech, a member of the Los Angeles Police Department, who was present at the rally, arrested him. The men who followed in Sinclair’s footsteps that day and tried to pick up the Constitution to continue reading it immediately met the same fate.
“In fact, everything that the Wobblies and the early socialist were fighting for, what they were demonstrating for,” Allen said, “what they often times were jailed for and sometimes were killed for, were the workers’ rights that most of you enjoy to this day, unless you’re driving for Uber.”
The last part about Uber drew quite a laugh from the audience. Allen finished what he had to say and recited the “Ballad of Joe Hill” to the audience’s pleasure and amusement.
“What I appreciate about what Greg is doing here,” Allen said. “With this beautiful library is the archiving of that past, which actually isn’t dead.”
“When people begin to learn about their history,” Santillan said. “It empowers them.”
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