Dr. Martin Luther King Had a Dream About the Curvaceous Slopes of California

Al Lisby. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Tuesday I came home from work with my youngest daughter, who is 17, and because we'd left the radio on for the dog, who hates windy days, we heard the unmistakable ringing, trembling, powerful voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at the very beginning of his speech at the Lincoln Memorial -- "I Have a Dream."

You might think that we've all heard this speech, these words, before. All of us in America, by now. We have. But she sat with her books and I stood in the kitchen, transfixed, unable to move, looking out the window while he said words not as often quoted: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." Could there be any better language for what we still face here -- not the same fights, but different fights? In those new and old fights, the same mistrust and division?

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Last month Alexander Lisby, who is 104 years old and lives in Riverside's Eastside, where he has a trophy on his television from the time he beat Tiger Woods in a golf game in Monterey when Lisby was 80 and Tiger was still a child, told me a story about California in the 1930s and 1940s. Lisby first came from Louisiana to Riverside in 1936, when he was stationed at Camp Hahn, just outside the city. He remembered coming to the city for work and recreation, and recounted, "All the black and Mexican American soldiers had to stay in this one small area, and we could load trains and move pallets all day, but we couldn't go downtown and see a movie. If you tried to walk across the Mission Avenue Bridge to go to Rubidoux, because a lot of black people lived in Rubidoux, someone would pull up alongside you in a car and tell you to go back where you were allowed. And you'd be wearing your uniform -- of the US military. They'd turn you around."

He served for years in the Philippines during World War Two, as a medic who treated soldiers dying of worms and wounds and gangrene. He married a woman from there, returned to Riverside, and has lived around the corner from my in-laws for many years, now with his wife Ara. (His first wife passed away.) He still writes letters to the editor, printed in the Riverside Press-Enterprise, and talked to me for hours about politics, history, and what is changed now, and what is not. On his wall are few photos -- one is of a white man in work clothes who owned an auto repair shop in Rubidoux, who became such a great friend of Lisby's that his picture hangs next to family portraits.

All my life, I've heard stories from people in Southern California who came here from the red hills of Georgia mentioned by Dr. King, people who came from Mississippi and Oklahoma and Arkansas, people who were born in Zacatecas or Michaoacan or Guanajato, who thought California was not segregated -- but it was. Josie Lozano tore down the signs on restrooms back in the 1930s in the Community Settlement House, where I stood yesterday watching kids of all colors doing art projects after school.

There were African American people born here, in Southern California, who could not use the same bathroom, swim in the same pool, or even buy a beer in many places. Californians might forget this by now -- but they have not, even as they stayed here and became teachers, probation officers, postal employees and lawyers, even as they raised their own kids here with me in the 1960s. Their grandchildren go to school with my own daughters.

Sue-Strickland. | Photo: Douglas McCullohSusan Strickland and Dorella Anderson were born here, in Riverside, and went to Irving School, on Riverside's Eastside. For decades, Dorella taught children at the Community Settlement house. We stood in front of Irving School yesterday, with Tyree Ellison, who was born two blocks from the school when some of the neighborhood was all white, some was all Latino, and very separate were streets where black families lived. We were talking about the old days, and now. Irving School was all Mexican American and African American, and many of the children who went there still live nearby. But when it was time to desegregate, Lowell School, only a few blocks away but all white, mysteriously burned to the ground. Students were eventually bused to different schools, and integration was achieved, but the memory of the smoke is always there. If we don't remember smoke, and Dr. King's words, we cannot keep moving forward.

During November's election, I was reminded by a poster for Mark Takano, who won a seat in Congress, that his parents were taken from their Riverside home and sent to internment camps, during those same years that Alexander Lisby was in the Philippines. Willie and Nancy Takano hold up a photo of their family back then. They had been born here. They reminded us of a segregation that goes far beyond the daily. Mrs. Takano was the secretary at my high school, and though I saw her every day, I never realized she had been sent to an internment camp. Monday is a good day to remember that.

On Saturday, Susan Strickland and Dorella Anderson and the others in the African American Historical Society along with the Martin Luther King Visionaries will host a screening about the Negro Baseball Leagues, which would not have existed if separation had not been absolute. And on Monday, which is still a holiday that many Americans insist is not the equivalent to Presidents' Day, hundreds of us will walk from Stratton Center down MLK Boulevard and end in Downtown Riverside, near his statue.

I'll be walking with my family, with newcomers to Riverside and families whose ancestors were here in 1870, with people whose faces and arms reflect every racial background, along with the years of sun. I always meet someone new, and I always see someone I've known since childhood. That's the best part.

We'll walk past Leonard Walker's house, built in 1900. Mr. Walker, 84, owned a club called The Place just near where the 91 Freeway is now. Recently he told me a story, too, about how when he was finished with a tour of duty in the Marines and left South Carolina, he came to Riverside to be with his brother Floyd, who'd been stationed here. Both men were born in rural Georgia. Walker said to me, "I liked Riverside! I wanted to stay here. I remember walking downtown to get a beer, in my uniform, and back then there was no freeway, so you just walked from here to there. I sat down at the bar, and the bartender told me, "Five dollars." I said, "What? Five dollars for a beer?" The white man next to me said, "My beer was only one dollar." The Bartender said, "Five dollars for him."

Walker grinned and said, "That guy next to me, he pulled out one dollar and slapped it on the bar and said, One beer. The bartender had to give it to him. Then he slid it over to me. And we started talking."

That is how it begins. Even now.

Dr. King's voice on the radio in my kitchen, the vibrations against the windows, called out the names of states -- Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, then New York and other places, and finally, he said, "Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California." We've heard that speech so often that maybe we don't always remember that part. I was glad to hear it again.

Susan Straight's new novel "Between Heaven and Here" was published September 12 by McSweeney's Books. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.

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