The Struggle for Civil Rights in Arizona
by Hon. Elizabeth Finn
Editor's Note:In our February issue we reprinted, from Arizona Insight, the newsletter of the Arizona Humanities Council, and in celebration of Black History Month, an article titled "Race & Ethnicity in the Southwest: African-American and Arizona History" by Quintard Taylor, Ph.D., head of the history department at the University of Oregon. It told of the struggle for civil rights in the West and in Arizona in the 1950s and 1960s. One of our readers, and a member of the Arizona Bar, Phoenix Municipal Court Judge Elizabeth Finn, grew up in that period, the daughter of a Phoenix attorney, the late Herbert B. Finn, who was one of the leading figures in the effort to achieve a body of civil rights law in our state. Judge Finn advised us that there was far more to the Arizona civil rights story than was set forth in Dr. Taylor's article. Dramatic breakthroughs were made, by lawyers working pro bono and by just plain citizens, of all races and creeds, giving their time and effort to a cause they cherished. Judge Finn herself was witness to some of those events. We invited her to tell her story in our pages.
Segregation as the Norm
The year was 1952. I was 5 years old, but I remember the incident vividly. My father and a fellow attorney, Hayzel Daniels, with me in tow, had gone to lunch at a restaurant in the San Carlos Hotel in downtown Phoenix. Daniels was black, the only black lawyer in Arizona at the time. He and my father were assistant attorneys general assigned to the State Land Department.
Initially we were greeted by the manager, who said to my father, "You cannot bring him in here." My father pointed out that our black guest was an assistant attorney general, not mentioning that he himself held such an office. We sat down at a table. We waited. We waited some more. Two hours passed. At last we were served, although with obvious reluctance.
As each course ended, something startling occurred. Our waiter picked up the dishes and smashed each one of them one by one. It was the restaurant's way of saying that our presence was repugnant. I recall asking my father why the plates were being broken and he responded, "Our friend's skin is a different color." I said, "I do not understand" and my father said, "I don't understand either."
I tell that story to make a point. Although many latter-day Arizonans living in an environment of democratic freedom and access might be surprised to learn it, Arizona at mid-century was, for all practical purposes, a segregated state.
Schools were racially segregated. Restaurants, hotels and other public accommodations were barred to people of color. When my father and Mr. Daniels traveled the state in pursuit of their duties, they were often unable to find a hotel to sleep in or a restaurant to eat in. "They would go for hours really hungry," recalls my mother, Ruth, "not able to find a place where they both could eat. It was extremely distressing." Job and housing discrimination was rife. Winter resorts discriminated against Jews and other minorities. Their literature was salted with such careful euphemisms as "restricted clientele" and "folks with common interests and cultural backgrounds." My father was one of relatively few people - whites, blacks, Hispanics and people of many religions, including Jews - coming together in the early 1950s to do something about this miasma of bias and exclusion. They worked through a handful of under-funded, often understaffed organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Greater Phoenix Council for Civic Unity, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Urban League. The leadership of Civil Unity reads like a Who's Who of the legal community: Former superior court judges William Gooding, Irwin Cantor and Elizabeth Stover; federal district court judge Carl Muecke; former circuit court of appeals judge Thomas Tang; former Ambassador to Ghana William Mahoney; Herbert Ely; Herbert Finn; and former City of Phoenix judge Hayzel Daniels.
The Drive to Desegregate the Schools
At mid-century, state law mandated segregation in the elementary schools but made it optional in the high schools. As Joe Stocker, a professional writer and former president of the Council for Civic Unity, later recounted in a booklet published by the ADL, "The law seemed to say that small white children had to be protected from something as heavy as going to school with small black children, but teenagers were old enough to deal with it."
In 1951 Hayzel Daniels - then a member of the legislature's lower house - introduced a bill to allow schools to voluntarily desegregate. An initiative seeking to mandate desegregation lost at the polls in 1952. At last, largely through the efforts of the NAACP and the Council for Civic Unity, legislation was passed making school segregation optional at both levels, elementary and high school. It was patterned after a California law which was later declared unconstitutional by the supreme court of that state.
The desegregationists then decided to attack their own law. The NAACP held a rally to raise money to hire two prominent liberal lawyers from southern California. Dr. Taylor says in his article that Barry Goldwater was "one of the principal financial supporters of the suit." The rally raised around $4,000. Goldwater - then a city councilman, later a U.S. senator, even later the Republican nominee for President - was indeed at the rally and sent up a check for $400, as witnessed by Joe Stocker. Moreover, the money that was raised was used for a lawsuit that was unsuccessful. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of black parents of children seeking admission to an all-white high school. But Judge David Ling dismissed the case, advising the litigants to first seek a remedy in the state courts.
The two liberal attorneys went back to California, taking their legal fees with them and leaving the Arizonans to fend for themselves. My father and Hayzel Daniels decided to do just that. They filed suit in Maricopa County Superior Court. Daniels and my father pursued the case on their own, writing and filing documents, without pay or reimbursement for expenses. Barry Goldwater had nothing to do with the lawsuits that succeeded in desegregating the high schools or elementary schools in Arizona.
In 1953 Superior Court Judge Fred Struckmeyer declared school segregation unconstitutional. "A half century of intolerance is enough," wrote Struckmeyer. It was a year before the U.S. Supreme Court arrived at the same conclusion in Brown vs. Board of Education. The school board did not appeal.
Herb Finn and Hayzel Daniels then filed suit to desegregate Arizona's elementary schools. A decision in their favor was handed down by Superior Court Judge Charles Bernstein. Again, no appeal.
Opening Public Accommodations
Public accommodations were the next target for desegregation. The problem was acute. Blacks could only eat at the downtown bus station. Black performers, such as the famed singer Marian Anderson, were barred from hotels and had to stay in private homes when they appeared here.
In 1952, my father and mother went out for dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Louis Jordan. Jordan was a nationally famous black bandleader who had a home in Phoenix. They chose the Sky Chef at Sky Harbor Airport. It was owned by the city and presumably there would be no discrimination. But there was. The Sky Chef refused to serve the Jordans, and management unsuccessfully tried to persuade my parents to eat without the Jordans.
My dad, working with the various civil rights organizations, went to the mat with the Phoenix City Council to force the Sky Chef to accommodate all comers. It took some doing - and an opinion from the then acting city attorney, Jack D.H. Hays (who later became a justice of the State Supreme Court), that Sky Harbor had to serve the "general public." The City Council ordered Sky Chef to do just that.
My father took some hits for being on the front line of the desegregation effort. The Phoenix Gazette carried a story, with his photo, one of the times when he was elected president of the Council for Civic Unity. In those days, the paper printed the home address of persons who were mentioned in the newspaper. We received a letter postmarked the day after the article appeared (anonymously, of course) calling him a "nigger-loving kike." In addition, I recall having to leave my house for two reasons as a youngster: the roof was leaking or we had received another bomb threat.
The Sky Chef victory was a limited one. The struggle had to be waged on a broad front. Thomasena and Eugene Grigsby both hoped that Phoenix would improve its image. In 1952, she worked with Lincoln Ragsdale, a black mortician, on the issue of a black Korean war veteran being buried in an all-white veterans' cemetery. She wrote an article in a black newspaper called the Chicago Defender about Ragsdale holding the body of the veteran, whose family wanted him buried at Greenwood Cemetery. Thomasena explained later that she felt it was necessary to talk about this issue outside of Phoenix when she said "... Remember, that Phoenix has always been a tourist town. People who come to a tourist town want to feel it's peaceful, restful, etc. If they get the idea that this is going on in Phoenix, they might begin to question this (discrimination)." Thomas Reed, the black war veteran, was finally buried in the previously all-white cemetery. Gene Grigsby helped bring the importance of culture to black youth by arranging to have their murals displayed on public housing buildings and a juvenile detention facility. He continuously worked with large financial institutions to display art of black youths. Civil rights organizations tried for years to gain passage of a public accommodations bill in the legislature. They won no support from the powerful Arizona Republic and its publisher, Eugene Pulliam. "We don't believe an innkeeper, for instance, should (or can) be forced to cater to anyone he doesn't want to," editorialized the newspaper... "If the legislature can pass a law telling businessmen whom they must cater to, there will be no limit to legislative authority to interfere in private business." (1953 and 1956 editorials)
The Resort War
Arizona Jews, meanwhile, were waging their own battle against religious discrimination in the fancy winter resorts. Only one major resort in Phoenix, the Arizona Biltmore, welcomed Jews. "Jews chew gum, don't they?" said William Wrigley, Jr., the chewing gum king who owned the Biltmore. Few Jews wanted to go to Camelback Inn, Paradise Inn or Jokake Inn. But they didn't want to be told that they couldn't. They regarded such religious discrimination as an aesthetic blight on the state in which they lived. "Arizona Jews, like most other Arizonans and Westerners at large, are proud of their state and their region and don't like to see it soiled by the dark splotch of bigotry," wrote Joe Stocker in an article in a western political magazine called Frontier. "Nor do they enjoy having in their own backyard an industry which flaunts its bigotry to the world."
The resorts' bigotry took some odd turns. Members of ADL, particularly Joe Stocker and Fran Waldman, were active in fighting resort discrimination. An interesting story involved a Cleveland businessman, Louis S. Vosburgh, who wrote to Camelback Inn for a reservation in 1956. Camelback wrote back requesting his church and club affiliations. (Read: Was he a Jew? His name sounded like he could be.) Vosburgh replied, "I feel compelled to tell you that in all my life it has never been necessary to subject myself to such close scrutiny as you have imposed in order to obtain hotel accommodations..." He noted that he was descended from Pennsylvania Dutch and his wife was of English ancestry, "born and reared in Kentucky." He found accommodations elsewhere, and with Vosburgh's permission, the ADL publicized the incident.
Camelback was embarrassed but not dissuaded. ADL zeroed in on conventions scheduled at the Inn. One was the 1954 Annual Meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General. Informed of Camelback's policy, the organization canceled its booking and rescheduled the meeting at a resort on the East Coast. ADL kept the pressure on. A prominent U.S. senator, Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts, planned a public appearance in Arizona and arrangements were made for him to stay at Camelback. ADL apprised him of the hotel's anti-Semitic policy. He canceled his reservation and, again with his permission, ADL went public with it. ADL wasn't favoring Camelback with its attention. It simply surmised that if the back of entrenched bigotry could be broken at a major resort such as the Camelback Inn, reform would spread to the others.
And that, indeed, is what happened. Camelback, feeling the heat, abandoned its discriminatory policy and so, in time, did all the other resorts. Ultimately the Camelback Inn was sold to a national chain and even installed a kosher kitchen!
Public Accommodation Finally Opened
In due course, under relentless pressure from the civil rights organizations, the city council and the legislature passed public accommodations laws in 1964. Many people contributed to changing the climate in Arizona at a time that it took real courage to speak out for human and civil rights. One of those people was Rabbi Albert Plotkin of Temple Beth Israel congregation. He took what was not always a popular stand at the time. Ruth Finn recalls Plotkin saying that it was moral duty to speak out for human rights. Dr. Martin Luther King appeared in Phoenix and Tempe in 1964, in part as the result of efforts of Rabbi Plotkin and Rev. George Brooks. Rabbi Plotkin solicited funds from Jewish businessmen to help pay for the costs for King's visit. Many other people helped in the civil rights effort. One of my favorite quotes from the Evening American was one that heralded the passage of the city public accommodations bill. It said " Hey Mom, They Passed the Bill," quoting Gwen Ragsdale, Lincoln Ragsdale's daughter. The paper went on to recount from Eleanor Ragsdale, "My children may be young but they know what public accommodations means." How true for all of us children with parents who were involved in the civil rights movement.
There were other problems and other breakthroughs. One was in housing. Blacks were confined largely to the south side of Phoenix. In 1961, only two black families lived in Scottsdale, and none in Mesa or the rapidly expanding subdivisions of Phoenix. Real estate agents wouldn't show homes in "white" sections to blacks, and banks wouldn't lend money to them. Lincoln Ragsdale, the successful black mortician, wanted to move his family to a better and larger home and decided he would not be restricted to the black ghetto. He had a white friend who was willing to buy a house in a "white" neighborhood in his own name and then transfer title to Ragsdale. Ragsdale (since deceased) said later that the neighbors seemed to accept him and his family because they thought he was the new family's butler. The mistaken identity didn't work long, though. Mary Melcher, writing in The Journal of Arizona History, said vandals "spray-painted the word 'nigger' on their house, and white playmates mistreated the Ragsdale children." Police frequently pulled Ragsdale over as he drove home late at night. "All you have to do to look suspicious is to be driving a Cadillac and be black," Ragsdale remarked.
And, of course, there was job discrimination. In the absence of corrective legislation, black leaders could only go after it one business at a time. Two of them, Ragsdale and a young, aggressive minister named George Brooks, tackled what was then the Valley National Bank, which had no black tellers. They landed an interview with the bank's president, Jim Pattrick, in which Brooks and Ragsdale used a "good cop, bad cop" routine to achieve their aims. Said Brooks: "Lincoln was brash, nasty...he would back (Pattrick) into a corner. I was the good guy. I would pull him out... Lincoln would back him (in) again, and I would pull him out. That's what you call creative conflict. We didn't know it, but that's what we did." The bank hired its first black teller in 1962.
Employment discrimination even had official sanction. Again as recounted by Ms. Melcher, Brooks and attorney Herb Ely, representing the Urban League, discovered that state welfare officials were helping a large Arizona corporation hire only white persons. In the spring of 1962, they intervened with then Attorney General Robert Pickrell. The story was leaked to The Arizona Republic. The company involved quickly integrated its work force.
There was a political breakthrough, too. Phoenix city government was dominated by an establishment group called the Charter Government Committee. It was, of course, all white and largely affluent. Activists organized and managed finally to elect a black in 1965 (Dr. Morrison Warren) and a Jew in 1967 (Ed Korrick) to the City Council. Charter's grip on city government was soon broken.
Women played an important role in the civil rights movement in Arizona. In fact, Ms. Melcher quoted one of the founders of Civic Unity, William Mohoney, as saying that "women were more effective at leaning on legislators and that they did not hesitate to make their feelings known. They were not worried about offending people in power and operated from deep feelings about the fundamental issue of civil rights."
Still, and especially in jobs and housing, only desultory progress was made until the 1960s. Then, with the civil rights revolution, broad anti-discrimination legislation was passed at federal, state and city levels. Of course, even today, there is residual black/white tension in employment, housing and police/community relations. Even so, we've come a long way. We Arizonans head into the millennium a new society, a better society, one in which the word "democracy" rings with real meaning.
One of my favorite quotes is from a letter to editor of The Arizona Republic written by my father on July 15, 1963. You can substitute any group for the phrase "Negro" and the words still ring true today.
"Our ancestors sinned in dragging a group of human beings to our shores as slaves. Do these sins of our ancestors now give us a "sacred property right" to stamp our fellow human beings as inferior and to discriminate against them? I do not agree that this is a problem to be solved by the Negroes. This problem is primarily the moral responsibility of the non-Negro. We have the responsibility of seeing that the bigots in our midst are taught that we are all brothers under the fatherhood of God. Those of us who deny this teaching of brotherhood may have to answer to their private conscience. Those of us who deny this teaching may have to further answer publicly to history. We may have to answer for helping to destroy one of the most powerful nations on earth by a crass and bold attitude of tolerance for bigots."
Elizabeth Finn has been a Phoenix Municipal Court Judge for 19 years. She wishes to thank Joe Stocker for his help with this article.