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Civil Rights & Wrongs In ‘The Golden State’

Whereever There's a Fight.
Whereever There's a Fight.

The legendary American abolitionist Frederick Douglass observed in the 1800s that "Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will." And thus the long legacy of conflict whenever the status quo is challenged in arenas of what widely come to be seen - although too often not until after the battle has been won - as fundamental human rights.

There has been much to fight about in California through the decades, as presented in "Wherever There's a Fight," a sweeping historical survey of legal, physical and moral struggles that have shaped our state. And although the book's tale begins only 150 years ago in the heady days of the California Gold Rush, as with the best works of history it often evokes a head-shaking wonder at how much things can change in a short time or how much some changes are still needed.

California's first state Constitution, enacted in 1848, guaranteed the right to vote to "every white male." In the following century and a half, American Indians were enslaved and decimated. Chinese workers were lynched and deported. Filipino farmworkers were beaten when they advocated for better conditions. Japanese were interned. African Americans were denied just about every right known to civilized society. Women were not just denied voting and reproductive rights but also knowingly used as sex slaves, while at the same time interracial marriage and "miscegenation" were banned or, at least, nonwhite men could not marry white women.

Lest these sorry episodes seem like ancient history, consider that a law banning interracial marriage stood until 1948, that baseball great Willie Mays had trouble getting a white homeowner to sell him a house in San Francisco in the late 1950s, that in 1965 Gov. Ronald Reagan called striking farmworkers "barbarians," that California voters outlawed bilingual education in 1988 and voted to deny health care to illegal residents in 1994 and so on, right up to last year's vote to ban same-sex marriage. Through it all, California has incarcerated people at an unmatched rate in often awful conditions and often to little useful end. The list of abuses summarized here, ranging from relatively minor to outright torture, is long and appalling.

The lessons of history should serve as good reminders for present conflicts, of course, so the documentation here is worth reading for that reason alone. But perhaps a more important reason to revisit the litany of suffering is to learn of all the brave people who have stood up and fought for rights, often with slow but real success. Some of the names here might be familiar - Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, Emma Goldman and Tom Mooney, and many more - but most were anonymous "accidental fighters" until something, usually awful, propelled them into the forefront of one of the struggles.

Conflicts over publishing are also recalled, as some landmark cases defeating newspaper censorship and book banning occurred here, including the famed 1957 San Francisco trial of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." Even San Francisco writer Richard Brautigan's whimsical "Trout Fishing in America," so popular that an Apollo astronaut named a lunar crater after a character therein, was banned from school libraries. Brautigan, in one of the rare humorous passages in Elinson and Yogi's book, quipped, "If Trout Fishing in America can get to the moon, I think it should be able to get to Anderson High School."

Renowned author Upton Sinclair, after being warned to "cut out that Constitution stuff" by Los Angeles police, co-founded the ACLU there. It should be noted that both co-authors are longtime current or former ACLU staff members, and that the stories they tell often feature that revered and reviled advocacy organization in a central role.

As struggles and backlashes continue, the authors suggest "even in these times - or especially in these times - it is vital to remember the lessons of history, from eras when California faced fearsome obstacles." To that end, their own book should itself become required reading in our state's underfunded and largely segregated schools.


Wherever There's a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California. Elaine Elinson & Stan Yogi. Heyday Books; 498 pages; $24.95 paperback.

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