Occupation! exhibit highlights racism at SF businesses

In April '64, activists protested racist hiring practices at this Cadillac dealership on Van Ness Avenue.
Phiz Mezey

By Cécile Lepage

San Francisco has always had a liberal streak, but not so its business community, as a current exhibit highlights. In 1963 and ‘64, San Francisco was hit with massive demonstrations that denounced businesses’ discriminatory hiring practices and demanded equal work opportunity for African-Americans. Crowds picketed on Auto Row, in front of Mel’s Drive-In, Lucky Store, the Sheraton Palace Hotel, and Bank of America.

The Main Library exhibit “Occupation! Economic Justice as a Civil Right in San Francisco, 1963-64” retraces a struggle for economic justice that was specific to the city by the Bay, where thousands of African-Americans had moved to during World War II to work on the shipyards. When the war effort wound down, they were the first to be fired. Only direct actions—sit-ins, sleep-ins, and shop-ins—were able to shake the status quo: they led to more than 260 employment agreements for minority workers. There’s only a few days left to discover this important yet underrepresented piece of SF history: the display ends on March 27.

We spoke with curator Nancy J. Arms Simon about the exhibit and its relevance:

SFBG: How did this exhibition come to be?

NAS: It was actually the brainchild of Susan Goldstein, from the San Francisco History Center, and Catherine Powell, the director of the Labor Archives and Research Center. They had talked about collaborating on an exhibit related to labor, drawing from both collections.

In the meantime, I had fallen in love with the photographs of the photojournalist Phiz Mezey that I had discovered at the Labor Archives. She documented the April ‘64 demonstrations on Auto Row. So, it was a perfect blending. Those pictures are amazing because esthetically they’re incredible. On every single one of them, the layout just keeps your eyes circling. And the other part is that Phiz Mezey had been removed from her position at San Francisco State University, where she had been a professor. She had refused to sign the Communist Levering Act that all public employees were required to sign. In the 1950s, anyone who worked for a state agency had to sign an anti-communist oath.

While she was petitioning San Francisco State for years to get her job back, which she did in 1978, she was also trying to support herself and her kids. And so she became a documentary photographer. So I had become intrigued with her and with that story. When I started the project, I thought it would be an exhibit on the Auto Row protests. I didn’t even realize that this was part of a greater series of events that had spanned for two years.

SFBG: What were people asking for?

NAS: What they wanted was jobs, what I refer to as front-end jobs. I don’t like the idea of using the terms skilled and unskilled labor, because too many things that are very skilled get lumped under unskilled labor.

Blacks in San Francisco were assigned to jobs where they didn’t interact with the public. Basically, they weren’t allowed to. So they were allowed to be mechanics, janitors, but they weren’t allowed to be service people: bank tellers, waitresses, salesmen. There were two big pushes conjointly going on. There was the push for equality in housing, to end the segregation in housing, and also this push for jobs. If you don’t have access to jobs, there’s so much that you lose along with that. There’s that compounded effect of not saving to send your kids to college or provide for your own retirement… 

SFBG: But during the Second World War, [President] Roosevelt had enacted the Fair Employment Practices Act that made discrimination unlawful with companies that held government contracts.

NAS: But it was slated to end once the war was over. It was voted through to continue slowly across the country state by state, but it wasn’t nationwide until ‘64, when LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act. So for 20 years, from 1945 to 1964, people who had known a certain quality of life were fighting just to maintain it. Laws to promote equality might have been enacted, or agreements might have been signed, but having the law didn’t mean anything. There was this understanding that you can never let out the pressure; you have to keep pushing to make sure that that equality is actually enacted.

SFBG: How did the protesters organize their actions?

NAS: There’s a lot of lessons on how you effectively make change. There was a lot of unity amongst the groups, CORE, the WEB Du Bois Club, and the Ad-hoc Committee to End Discrimination. They had lawyers in place. Before a protest, they would decide who could afford to get arrested, and who couldn’t. So the people who could afford to get arrested would go to a certain level, they would maybe go inside the building. And all the leaders always made a point to get arrested, because they knew that that would get more press. And they also intentionally clogged the courts. They made sure that hundreds of people would get arrested just to slow things down and make it more difficult on the system.

It was really effective. And I think there’s a lot of these lessons that we miss today. They started with Mel’s Diner and they did get the owner to sign the agreements. Over at Lucky Store grocery, they did a shop-in. This is non-violent protest at its most beautiful! They went in and filled their shopping carts, they got to the counter and got them all run through. Remember, this is all scanned by hand. And then, once everything was scanned, they would say, “I will pay for these groceries once you give better jobs to Blacks,” and then they would leave. And all these bagged groceries filled the entire floor! All this stuff had to be put away. Plus people were picketing outside the store. So not only are you creating this major headache and throwing this wrench in the wheel, you’re also blocking people from shopping. So they were significantly cutting into their income.

SFBG: The Sheraton Palace Hotel rally was the biggest protest to take place.

NAS: It was really hard to narrow it down to a few statements to get into a showcase! About 1,500 protesters surrounded the hotel on March 6, 1964. There were other events leading up to that, though, they had tried negotiations, they had started smaller pickets outside. There would have been a court order to end the picket. So this is all building up.

During the major protest, I think 450 people entered the building and wouldn’t leave the lobby. The police carried them out, but they came back. They slept in overnight. And then the mayor, Jack Shelley, stepped in. He worked on the negotiation process and made it happen. After that, literally, the day they signed the agreement, they started picketing on Auto Row. This is how well organized they were. At the same time, other businesses were signing agreements for hiring Blacks, because they didn’t want this kind of press to happen. Remember, this is all happening in “liberal” San Francisco, so the fact that this is not good press for them counted.

SFBG: In the outcomes, you were careful to underline how these events had an impact on individuals’ lives.

NAS: It’s so easy for us in hindsight to know that civil rights were the right thing to fight for. But just think about what it would take out of somebody to get arrested. Tracy Sims, who later became Tamam Tracy Moncur, basically took the fall for her group. Because there were so many people arrested, they sent them to court in groups of 10 to12 people. She ended up getting 60 days in jail, plus a $200 fine. It was horrible for her. She was an idealistic 18-year-old. She knew she was doing the right thing. They were successfully changing laws just to confirm she was doing the right thing. And then she’s punished. After she served her time, her mother was already back on the East Coast, and she went to live with her mom.

SFBG: You were able to gather artifacts to tell this story, pins in particular.

NAS: These are all part of the Labor Archive collection. Graphically, they’re so simple, easy to read. You see them in photographs and they absolutely pop out. My favorite one is this “= Quality” one. It’s timeless. You’ve got the word play of equality equals quality. It’s got the silhouettes of a white child and a black child. What does equality really mean? It means equal quality for everybody. It’s not just a word. I really love that one, because it’s still so contemporary. Objects have got a power of their own. If you can stop and think of what’s involved, why they were created, and all the places they’ve been to… Some of the old pins will have the printer’s union stamp and the sheet metal workers’ stamp Look at that! That’s pride in your work right there.