Martin Luther King Jr. & Robert Kennedy

1968– The year that changed America

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I will never forget the evening of June 5, 1968, the pounding on my dorm door, and my next door neighbor sobbing that I had to turn on my television. She had just received a phone call from her boyfriend that something terrible had happened. I was fortunate back then to have my own TV, thanks to my dad who had a knack for electronics, and especially fixing TVs everyone else had given up on. My revamped television soon had a tearful crowd gathered around as more and more poured into my room to try to comprehend the unbelievable– Robert Kennedy had been shot.

It had just been two months since we had all been stunned by the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and five years since the assassination of President John Kennedy. Now it had happened again! What was America becoming? What kind of nation was our generation inheriting?

1968 was a year of shocks. There was the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, campus demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, ghetto violence– indications things had gone wrong deep in the roots of American society. These were diseases not curable by minor measures.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Tragedy that fateful year began with the April 4 assassination of Dr. King by James Earl Ray (who would die in prison in 1998). It jarred Long Beach as it did the nation. The slaying, said many leaders in the black community, proved that non-violence did not work.

Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Martin Luther King Jr.

Shock, disbelief and prayerful concern for the future of the civil rights movement were voiced by African American and white clergy in Long Beach. One of the clergy, Rabbi Sidney Gutherman of Temple Sinai, participated with Dr. King in the celebrated 1964 march on Selma, Ala. The Long Beach rabbi said he considered Dr. King “in the mold of a Gandhi and of the prophets of old. His passing will be mourned by people all over the world.” (Press-Telegram April 5, 1968). Dr. Jesse Boyd of Grant Chapel AME Church said King’s assassination was one of the most deplorable things that had happened in America. He appealed to blacks and whites not to react violently to the assassination, since both races had lost a friend.

A memorial service was held April 5 at Grant Chapel AME to pay honor to the slain Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Flags were flown at half-staff throughout the city, and services were also conducted at Cal State Long Beach and Long Beach City College. Three members of the Long Beach Human Relations Committee– Dr. E. John Hanna, chairman of the committee; Dr. Horace Rains, vice chairman; and Zelma Lipscomb, president of the Long Beach branch of the NAACP– attended the actual funeral for Dr. King in Atlanta.

In late April, Press-Telegram reporter Jim Goodrich began a series of articles describing African American life in Long Beach. Riots had broken out in over 100 U.S. cities following King’s assassination, but not in Long Beach. Here, nobody looted a store, hurled a Molotov cocktail or fell victim to a policeman’s bullet. African Americans patrolled the streets in cars, went from door to door and manned telephones– all to spread the message for people to avert rioting. Much of the calm was due to the city’s Human Relations Committee, established six years earlier to help reduce racial tensions in the city. Recommendations had been made by the committee for city programs to end housing discrimination, biased practices in employment and abusive police methods. Thanks in part to the committee, Long Beach’s Douglas Aircraft was the first aerospace operation in the U.S. to volunteer to provide equal job opportunities for minorities. On the company’s work force of 40,000, minorities held 20 percent of the jobs, ranging from high engineering executives and supervisors to office clerks and line laborers. Two new job training programs were in the works to increase this amount.

According to Fair Housing proponents, Long Beach needed to build 300 units in what was called Long Beach’s ghetto, the area between 10th and Hill and Atlantic and Walnut. As many as 200 of the existing housing units in the area were considered unfit dwellings, yet many black families inhabited them.

Decent, low-rent housing was an urgent need, but despite the bleak statistic, black families were moving into hitherto all-white neighborhoods in a slow, apparently steady trickle. According to the Fair Housing Foundation, between February and August of 1968, 25 black families moved into previously all-white areas with the assistance of the foundation. Since the establishment of the Fair Housing Foundation in 1964, 170 African American families had broken the housing race barrier. Many had moved to Long Beach’s Westside, a three-square-mile island of integration in a sea of segregation, cut off from the rest of Long Beach by the Long Beach, San Diego and Terminal Island freeways that surrounded it. This area truly lived up to the city’s boastful “International City” nickname, whereas the rest of the city was about as international as downtown Cedar Rapids. (Press-Telegram Dec. 12, 1968).

The Westside didn’t get so “international” by design. No one suddenly decided one day that everything north of Anaheim Street, between the freeways, would be integrated. The trend began in the early years of World War II with the construction near Santa Fe and Pacific Coast Highway of the Navy’s Savannah Housing Project. The Navy was partially integrated by then, and Savannah was dotted with a few African Americans and other minority group members. The same was true, to a lesser degree, of the government’s other Westside housing projects– Cabrillo and Truman Boyd Manor. It was also on the Westside that the government set up trailer parks to house Japanese-Americans returning from the “relocation centers” into which they were herded during the war. The combination of the Japanese settlements and the integrated Navy housing discouraged some whites from living on the Westside and provided realtors with an escape route for home-hunting minority group members dissatisfied with the central Long Beach ghetto area.

In later years, many of Signal Hill’s black population were forced to leave town because the apartment complexes where many lived were being converted into condominiums. The Signal Hill Apartment complex, located on the west side of Signal Hill, had been purchased in 1982 by Thousand Oaks developer Samir Tieel. About 70 percent of the city’s 700 African Americans lived there. Though Tieel offered to help tenants qualify for loans to give them first right of refusal on the condominiums, most families, even with financial help, could not afford to purchase the units. “There’s no place else in Signal Hill for them to go,” said Midge Purcell, head of the Coalition for Economic Survival (LA Sentinel March 25, 1982). Many headed for Long Beach’s Westside.

Dr. King was remembered in many ways in Long Beach. He would have been pleased to see the steps Long Beach had taken to end discrimination in housing, employment and schooling, and he would have been happy to be honored by having a park named after him, his wife told a crowd gathered for the dedication of the park in December 1968. Throughout the second half of 1968, the old 19th Street Playground was turned into a new park named for the slain civil rights leader. Martin Luther King Park was bigger and better. Cerritos Avenue between 19th and Rhea had been closed and the block converted into a ball field and a picnic area. Several years later, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 20, 1986, California Avenue would change its name to Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

Robert F. Kennedy
Cries of “what’s happening to our country?” echoed from coast to coast following the assassination of presidential hopeful, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, on June 5, 1968. Moist eyes and open sobbing were seen on the streets of Long Beach. Many had greeted Kennedy back in May when he arrived at Long Beach Airport for a campaign sweep through Southern California; others had seen him just a few days earlier, on June 2, when he appeared at Garden Grove’s annual Strawberry Festival. It was unbelievable that he was dead, and dead from an assassin’s bullet.

Robert F. Kennedy

On June 5, 1968, 12:15am, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was making his way from the ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to give a press conference. He had just won the California Presidential Primary. The prearranged route went through a food-service pantry. While making his way through this area, a Palestinian Arab, Sirhan Sirhan, stepped forward and fired a .22 revolver at the Senator. Although Sirhan was quickly subdued, Kennedy and five others were wounded, although Kennedy was the only fatally. Sirhan was arrested at the scene. Coincidently, June 5 marked the first anniversary of the six-day 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Friends of Sirhan said he was “virulently anti-Semitic” and was outraged by Sen. Kennedy’s pledge to continue America’s commitment to Israel.

In January 1969, Alfonso Galindo of Long Beach was asked to serve on the Sirhan Sirhan jury. In May 1969, Galindo and his fellow jurors convicted Sirhan Sirhan of first-degree murder. Sirhan was to have been executed, but the U.S. Supreme Court voided the constitutionality of the death sentence before the sentence could be carried out. Sirhan has been incarcerated at Corcoran State Prison, California, ever since.

There is no memorial to Robert F. Kennedy in Long Beach, as there had been for Dr. King. Soon after his assassination, a plaque in Kennedy’s honor was proposed for Lincoln Park, but the request was turned down by the City’s Public Relations Committee. They stated the request had “taken on a partisan attitude” and had received “numerous” phone calls opposing the project. (Press-Telegram July 18, 1968)

Plaques can be stolen, as witnessed in March 2019, when the bronze plate on the King statue in Long Beach was taken. A greater tribute to the slain senator would be to adhere to Kennedy’s last words– a plea and a pledge to “stop the violence in this country.” A sentiment also close to the heart of Dr. King.

For those who missed my last talk on prohibition days in Long Beach and Signal Hill, I will be speaking again at 5pm on Wednesday, June 25, at the Ruth Bach Neighborhood Library 4055 Bellflower Blvd. (at the corner of Bellflower and Carson). The hour-long program is free. For questions, contact the library at (562) 570-1038.