Monday, April 23, 2007

Alice McGrath's 90th Birthday Bash

I drove to Camarillo this weekend to celebrate Alice McGrath's 90th birthday with hundreds of her closest friends. Among other things, Alice was the executive secretary for the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee in the 1940s (Carey McWilliams was the national chair.) In that case, 12 youths, mostly Latinos, were convicted of homicide after a biased trial. The conviction was overturned on appeal in what became a landmark case. That success was the first major victory for the Latino community in Los Angeles, and McWilliams later regarded it as the beginning of the Chicano movement.

As for the wingding itself, we met at the UFCW local, and the co-sponsors were the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) and the Center for Constitutional Rights. There were a dozen or so speakers, I would guess, including Warren Olney and many prominent judges, lawyers, and politicians. The speeches were very moving, none more so than Alice's. She compared her kind of activism to housework--something that must be done continually if we expect good results, not something that leads to a one-time "victory." Thinking of it that way prevents illusions, she said, and therefore disillusionment. What a great event--a fitting tribute to a remarkable woman.

Many books, including American Prophet, discuss the Sleepy Lagoon case and Alice's work. But there's also an American Experience documentary called Zoot Suit Riots that I show in the California Culture class at San Francisco State. Alice doesn't like it because it purports to finally solve the murder, but it covers both Sleepy Lagoon and the Zoot Suit Riots pretty well in one hour.

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