“Specialist, just exactly what does this mean?” demanded the African American Army captain, pointing to an item on the rental listing card, “Restrictions: Racial, yes.”
During my first year and a half of cushy service as Ford Ord’s Military Housing Representative stationed at the Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce no one had every remarked, much less complained, that over 85% of my rental listings were racially restricted. It was early 1963 and there were no laws prohibiting housing discrimination. I routinely and thoughtlessly directed African Americans to Seaside, a small city nestled between Ft. Ord and Monterey, the only community on the Monterey Peninsula relatively free from housing discrimination.
Shortly before my anticipated “early out” discharge so I could start law school, my complicity in the Army’s perpetuation of race discrimination came to an abrupt end upon the African American captain’s arrival at my desk. A rainbow of service ribbons adorned his jacket. His silver captain’s bars sparkled. His bright, cheerful disposition matched his bars. “Good morning specialist, I understand that you have some houses for rent. I need a place for my family. Base housing told me nothing was available on post.” I opened up a map of the Monterey Peninsula, oriented him to it, and handed him binders containing listings for two and three bedroom homes on the Monterey Peninsula.
Within seconds he addressed me again, cooly and courteously, but with a restrained anger in his voice. “Specialist, just exactly what does this mean?” “Sir, that means they will not rent to you because you are a Negro.”
“Don’t you know that the President has ordered the military not to cooperate with landlords who discriminate?” “No,sir,” I replied, “I have never been told that.” After several minutes of flipping through the listings, he told me he was going to go back to the base housing office, thanked me, turned and left. I immediately called the sergeant and related what had happened. He told me not to worry about it, that there was in fact a vacancy on post if he came back. But what about the President’s order? The sergeant brushed me off. The order was just for PR, it meant nothing and for me to get back to work and quit hassling him about things that were none of my business.
It became my business. I was uncomfortable disobeying an order of the Commander in Chief, PR or not. I began to dread it when Black soldiers came in seeking help that I could not give them. The image of the captain, so impressive in his stature and bearing, so restrained in his anger, would not leave me. The injustice of what had happened gnawed at me. I met with some civil rights workers in Seaside. That night I fell asleep with their command ringing in my ears, “You’ve got to do something.” But how could a lowly Specialist 4th class take on the army?
There was a way. I had been a journalism major the year I spent at U.C. Berkeley and was assistant editor of the UCSB newspaper. I knew something aout the power of the press. I called the local newspaper. The next morning the story ran. The headline proclaimed the Army’s discriminatory practices. I was quoted. My statistics were quoted. The President’s order was quoted. Upon my arrival at work that morning, the Chamber manager coolly told me to call my sergeant immediately. I was in deep trouble. A car was being sent for me. The sergeant, the base housing officer and I were to report to the Commanding General. “You can forget about getting your early out,” the sergeant threatened, “because your next duty post will be in the swamps of the south, where they know how to take care of “nigger-lovers.”
Within minutes the brown Chevy sedan pulled up in front of the Chamber office. We stopped at the base housing office. My sergeant and captain got in. Nothing was said. When we got to the Commanding General’s spacious office, I was instructed to sit down and wait.
The sergeant, the base housing officer, the Commanding General and several other officers conversed at a conference table across the room. I waited, as ordered, on an unpadded oak chair next to the door. As the brass quietly debated my fate my mind raced wildly, agonizing about the punishment they were plotting for me. The early release for law school was out, that was certain. Would they court martial me? No, it would be simpler to send me to the south to die in a swamp at the hands of red-neck soldiers. My fate was sealed. I was dead meat.
After an eternity, the Commanding General addressed me. “Specialist!” I came to attention. “Come here, please.” I marched to the conference table and stood rigidly at attention. He did not put me at ease. He studied me forever. Finally he spoke. “Specialist, you are to return to your duty post. Call each of the landlords. Explain that you cannot list racially restricted property. Remove every listing that remains restricted. And Specialist, the next time you want to talk to the press, clear it first with the base public relations officer.”
That order ended my civil rights confrontation with the Army but marked the beginning of a career of fighting discrimination. The experience ignited a passion for civil rights. I joined the Law Students’ Civil Rights Research Council, spent the summer of 1965 in Mississippi working on a school desegregation project, went to work for the Civil Rights Division of the U. S. Department of Justice upon graduation and was a trial lawyer for 42 years, with a major part of my time devoted to civil rights cases.
I owe a lot to that distinguished Army captain. He launched my civil rights career by challenging the illegal status quo by asking a question that had to be asked, “Specialist, exactly what does this mean?”