It’s a typical fall day in 1966 San Diego. But the mild, sun-soaked day belies the political temperature of the times.
It’s been one year since Martin Luther King Jr.’s Selma march and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which bans discriminatory voting requirements. Now, a backlash has taken hold.
The campaign for California governor is in full swing and the Hollywood actor turned GOP candidate Ronald Reagan is leading in the polls against incumbent Pat Brown. He’s promising the return of law and order to the Golden State with an eye on quelling the burgeoning student movement at UC Berkeley.
The Black Panthers have only recently formed in Oakland and The New York Times is characterizing a protest there that turned violent as a riot.
After reading these headlines, Harold “Hal” Brown takes a deep breath and heads towards San Diego's KSDO radio station.
As a Black man and co-founder of the San Diego chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), an interracial civil rights group, Brown isn’t surprised by the unrest. However, as the co-host of the KSDO live call-in show, "Viewpoints," he’s girding for a tense discussion.
Once seated in front of the microphone across the table from his co-host and civil rights leader Rev. E. Major Shavers, the music starts to play and the show begins.
“A program designed to promote a better understanding between interested people of all races through a meaningful exchange of opinion and comment,” the announcer reads. “We invite your telephone comments and questions.”
Shavers and Brown start by providing their perspective on the topic being discussed. Brown is younger than Shavers, who often provides a more measured approach and tone. Brown wants to see change and believes in direct action.
“The white backlash is nothing more than White America’s answer to the cry of Black people for complete American citizenship,” he said. “White America’s answer now, as it always has been. White America sits back on its white power throne and waits for Black America to do something it does not agree with.”
Then the phone lines open up and the conversations begin.
“This idea of Black power isn’t going to help their cause, it only hurts it,” one caller said. “I think the real story of white backlash is that people just flat out had it and unless something changes drastically and soon, these people are going to be in serious trouble.”
When Shavers asks one caller if he thinks Black people are citizens of America, the man answers in the affirmative. But he adds he doesn’t think his rights should be impinged when it comes to who he rents his home to or the bussing of school children.
Over the course of the show’s run, Brown and Shavers invite San Diegans to talk about issues like Black power, integration, Mexican-American civil rights, and even citizen oversight of the police. None of these issues get resolved but the conversations are largely respectful.
A voice then and now
Fast forward more than 50 years and Hal Brown, now 87, chuckles when he listens to the radio show he hosted in his 30s. He doesn’t even recognize himself at first.
“I didn’t recognize the voice then, because it’s so different now,” he said. It’s softer now, with a little more gravel and a little more wisdom.
Looking back on his years of activism in San Diego, Brown thinks more people should recognize and celebrate how far we’ve come since the days when he was organizing CORE protests against SDG&E, the Bank of America, and the San Diego Zoo — trying to get them to simply employ and serve Black people.
“Now we have black teachers, black lawyers, black judges, black corporate executives, and as you know, when I look up in the air, I see some astronaut flying up there and it's a Black lady,” he said.
He wishes he could go back in time and tell some of the callers what he knows now.
Born in York, Pennsylvania in 1934, Brown attended a predominantly white school and dreamt of being the next Jackie Robinson. He ended up playing basketball on scholarship at San Diego State University. It was during this time that he became involved in civil rights.
“My big awakening came when I was just graduating from San Diego State,” he recalled. “I began to be associated with some people who were challenging segregation and discrimination.”
The first group he joined was the El Cajon Valley Open Housing Committee, an interracial group that was looked to racially integrate neighborhoods in El Cajon and La Mesa. The work entailed knocking on doors and asking residents whether they would be opposed to living in racially diverse neighborhoods.
“I went up to one door, one home, and I remember I told them why I was there and would be they be willing to sign a petition saying that you did not object to having Negros living in your community,” he said. “And he slammed the door in my face and said, ‘That’s why I moved here.’”
Those memories stayed with him and inspired him to create San Diego’s CORE chapter and lead protests against employment and housing discrimination that targeted San Diego’s largest employers and the San Diego Real Estate Association.
History repeats itself
Although Brown considers it a mistake to ignore the progress that has been made, he’s also quick to say it has been achingly slow and in recent times we’ve gone backward.
“There have been instances of progress, but it hasn't been overall,” he said. “We have to rid American Whites of this disease.”
The disease of racism, as he calls it, continues to ail the country.
The Jan. 6 insurrection, the efforts in 2022 to limit the Black vote and the recent outcry over teaching ethnic studies in school all make him feel like he’s back in 1966, navigating White backlash.
“I think most of the problems we’re experiencing, such as not teaching slavery in the schools and things like that, is a backlash against the strides that we have made as Americans, as Black Americans," he said. “ It's there today and unfortunately, it will be there tomorrow.”
As an example, he points to the efforts then and now to establish a citizens review process for the San Diego Police Department. Here’s what he said 55 years ago:
“Negroes are treated unjustly. Now, where can you go to complain? You go to the police department and complain,” he said on the air. “Well, many Negroes feel, and I feel that going to the police department to complain about the police department just does not make good sense.”
One of his callers pushed back, asking: “Do you feel there is any validity that there is police brutality in San Diego?”
Brown responded, saying: “I think that the only way we would be able to make that decision is to investigate the complaints and to set up a group of citizens who had the confidence of the city to investigate the complaints made by other citizens.”
San Diego didn’t create an oversight board until the 1980s, but many considered that board toothless because it didn’t have truly independent investigative powers. In 2020, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, San Diegans overwhelmingly supported Measure B, which created a review board with subpoena powers. Its implementation is still pending.
Can past be prologue?
The folly of the present is that it underestimates the lessons of the past — that’s something that Brown wants people to understand.
Listening back to his interactions with callers on "Viewpoints," he points out that people had sharp differences in their opinions but were willing to have a conversation.
“We weren't arguing or fighting and calling each other names and trying to demean each other,” he said. “We were trying to understand and when he would say something, I would ask the question, ‘do you agree?’”
Today, he says the desire to reach a common ground has been replaced by social media megaphones and cable TV echo chambers. He believes that if the United States is ever going to realize its democratic promise of equality, we’ll have to regain our ability to communicate respectfully with one another.
“I am trying to push the idea that we need to really find a way to sit around and then discuss this and talk about it and bring the truth to the forefront in a way that people can accept and not be alienated,” Brown said. “Right now, during this stage, communication with each other is key.”
Brown remains optimistic that the current rancor will subside and progress, however halting, will continue. He believes this because he knows history is cyclical — both the bad parts and the good. And he’ll keep fighting because he can’t let down the people that came before him.
“They were lynched they were tarred and feather, they were jailed, they were whipped and they suffered through all that and all the hard labor they suffered, to get me where I am today,” he said. “So, how can I not continue?”