There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Thursday, June 21, 2007

California Rising on the bus

Finished "California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown" by Ethan Rarick. This is an excellent, well-written account of California's postwar transformation and Edmund G. "Pat" Brown's role. Highly recommended.

And, for me, highly depressing.

I grew up during Pat Brown's time as governor. My mother was active in the California Democratic Council, a statewide organization created from the remnants of the Stevenson Clubs created during Adlai Stevenson's first unsuccessful run for president.

During one of Brown's campaigns he made a stop in the San Fernando Valley and I got to shake his hand -- a child's thrill. Many, many years later, when I worked in an office building at 10th and L, I often ate lunch in the Capitol basement restaurant. One day, I was walking down a corridor and saw a large group of elementary school children gathered around an elderly gentleman. I recognized the former governor immediately.

"Honest," I heard Pat Brown say as I walked by. "I was the governor of California." This seemed more than the kids could believe.

Brown represents an era when government was good, when optimism wasn't ridiculed, when taxes were the accepted price of infrastructure to meet the needs of a growing state. That day seems so very far removed from today.

Brown was a product of his times. I didn't enjoy reading about his success shutting down a San Francisco abortionist or his law-and-order response to civil disobedience. But on one topic, he was rock solid and admirably ahead of the people of California: civil rights.

The governor played an important role in the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Act and California's first laws guaranteeing fairness in housing. In 1963, after a lengthy struggle, the Legislature passed the Rumford Fair Housing Act. Property owners and others immediately launched a referendum drive and the issue of repealing the prohibition on discrimination in housing was put to a vote in Proposition 14 in November 1964.

Today, the idea that homeowners have a right to refuse to sell to blacks or landlords can refuse to rent to Hispanics seems foreign or at least from some distant, ignorant age. But not in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

During the campaign against Proposition 14 my mother loaded me and my brother into her car and drove from our all-white San Fernando Valley neighborhood to the home of a black family in Watts. Two black girls, their hair in pigtails and wearing dresses, were made to play with two white boys in their Sunday clothes. In 1964, you had to manufacture such a scene. You couldn't just go to any public park like you can today and find diverse bands of children enjoying themselves. The photo was used in fliers in the campaign against repealing California's fair housing laws.

Voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 14 and thus rejected the idea that government could enforce fairness in housing. Only tiny Modoc County stood with the governor. It was a shameful day. And it foreshadowed the day when a former Hollywood actor could rage that "the law benefited 'one segment of our population' while restricting 'one of our most basic and cherished rights,' the ability to sell property to anyone" and win overwhelming support of California voters.

This book covers an important period. As Rarick explains, "California's postwar migration, sixties ferment, and conservative reply set the tone for America, and Americans started thinking of California as example rather than anomaly."

It would be nice to imagine California again a leader in progressive thought, rather than conservative ideology. We've lost so much since the heyday of Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown.


Zeno said...

I was recently reminiscing about Pat Brown myself. In so many ways Pat represented the "good old days". Once in the late seventies I ran into him using the pay phone in front of UCD's Memorial Union. He was apparently checking in with his San Francisco office while on a jaunt to the state capital. A couple of unfriendly looking security guys kept me from getting too close, but I passed near enough to hear him say (presumably to his secretary), "The governor expects me for lunch? I don't give a good goddam what Jerry expects." Good old Pat seldom minced words.

John said...

It was your post at that prompted me to purchase the book.