Alice McGrath

Alice McGrath
  INT: What was the Sleepy Lagoon Case?
AM: Ah, the Sleepy Lagoon was a mass trial of 22 -- we would not say chicanos -- Mexican American young men who were being tried for murder and in the most racist trial in the history of California jurisprudence, ah, they were convicted. Twelve of them were convicted, ah, of murder and sent to San (Unintell.) -- ah, San Quentin. And out of that grew the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, of which I was the executive secretary.


INT: What was the role of the black newspapers in this Sleepy Lagoon Case?
AM: The Sleepy Lagoon Case was preceded by a series of articles in the Hearst Press talking about the danger of pachuco gangs in -- danger to our society, like the worst thing that existed in -- in Los Angeles. And from the beginning the black press viewed these stories as racist stories and when the trial began -- when the boys were indicted and the trial began, the black press gave better, more honest and more searching out issues coverage than almost any other press in the -- in the whole country. And this was not just in -- in California and the California Eagle; it was all over the country. Ah, I remember particularly the Chicago Defender and its coverage of the Sleepy Lagoon Case as a racist trial.


INT: Talk about Los Angeles race relations in the '20s, '30s, and '40s.
AM: In Southern California, which was where I lived, race relations were very set, as in a segregated pattern. Ah, there was the ghetto, the -- the Central Avenue ghetto where blacks lived and, ah, even visitors coming to Los Angeles, if they were distinguished or famous people, stayed at the Dunbar Hotel because they couldn't stay anyplace else and restrictive covenants were circulated and were -- and were legal and the restrictive covenants were meant to prevent owners or renters from allowing, ah, blacks particularly, but Mexicans, filipinos, Asians, and Jews from, ah, moving in, buying, or renting. The black press and the Jewish press in the days around '30s-'40s, ah, in that period, were covering the same issues and they were covering them from the same point of view. They were seeing issues that were racist, that were certainly not identified as such by the mainstream --the mainstream press. They were seeing issues that were social justice issues that were not being seen as such by the mainstream, ah, press. And they were practically the only place, besides left and labor, ahm, press, where one could see issues in terms of how they touched people's lives as racism or social justice.


INT: What was the role of the ethnic papers at that time?
AM: The role that the ethnic newspapers played was to fill the void, because since the, ahm -- the mainstream press was not looking at those issues, not looking at them seriously, and not looking at them honestly, from my point of view, there was a place that black people could read about themselves and the writing was about them from the point of view who understood and also experienced the -- the -- had the experiences that they were having. And the same thing was true of the black press and, ah, I'm sure in other ethnic presses. But it filled the void. The mainstream press wasn't talking about it.


INT: How was Charlotta Bass a hero for you?
AM: Charlotta Bass was one of my role models, and I call her one of my heroes as well, because here is a black woman working for -- working for her community, working in an area where it is even dangerous to be doing some of the things, because she is offending, ah, the majority society by writing what she's writing and criticizing people that she's criting-- criticizing, and taking stands for her community that are militant stands. And I admired that. I thought she was brave. I thought she was wonderful, and I felt inspired by her.


INT: What did the loss of The Eagle mean to the black community, and to the white community, too, in LA?
AM: With The Eagle one, I don't think there's anyplace that people have, ahm, a view of the world as the world appears to people of color and as people of color experience it, because when we turn on television, we don't have the choice between a white television and a black television. There ain't none. We just look at what they give us. And the, ah, California Eagle was a place to see yourself as you might see yourself in the mirror.


INT: Did you ever read the black papers and why?
AM: Well, I read the black papers, I read the Jewish papers, and I read the -- the left and labor papers because I didn't -- I didn't believe anything I read in --in the commercial press. I things that I knew about were reported so badly in the commercial press that I had to go look for other places, including I.F. Stone's Weekly and The California Eagle and The Nation and, ah, Our Daily Bread and other ... and other publications that were looking at issues that interested me. But it really is interesting to me that in the hardest, hardest times, which was, you know, during the Depression and during the early '40s and so on, all up to the First World War, the -- nobody talked about blacks and Jews couldn't get along. Nobody was talking about -- you know, it wasn't an issue. It just seemed it was, ahm -- it was a given and to some degree or another, all of the people of color and the Jews and the Labor Movement and the Left Movement could see that the issues affected all of then and then was -- you know, that was fractured.


INT: Could you talk about restrictive covenants and the role of the black press and The Eagle in helping to knock that down?
AM: Restrictive covenants were used in Southern California widely to make sure that segregation was, ahm, promoted and kept in place and so on. And the California Eagle had an ongoing campaign against restrictive covenants, ah, I think realizing that that was one of the first barriers that might be removed, ah, and that would lead to, ah, more freedom of -- more availability of housing to black people, who were, until then, really living only in -- in the ghetto.


INT: Could you talk a bit more about race relations around LA in the '30s and '40s?
AM: Race relations here in Los Angeles in the '30s and, ah, '30s and early '40s that I remember most clearly, were just terrible. A black person could not go into a drugstore counter -- drugstore and eat at the counter. If a black customer came into a fancy department store, one of the best department stores, the -- the staff was actually trained how to avoid waiting on a black customer. Ah, we could not go -- if I was with a group that included, ah, black people, we couldn't to into a restaurant and eat. Ah, if I were walking along the street with a black person, I would feel -- I would see that people were -- were turning around to stare at us. It was not common to see black and white people socializing together.


INT: Talk about the role of a paper like The Eagle in forging relationships between ethnic groups.
AM: Ahm, the role of The California Eagle in keeping alliances together was very, very important because by writing about these issues, explaining why these issues were important to all these people and why the issues made them natural allies was extremely, extremely important. It wasn't being done anyplace else.
(END INTERVIEW)