Why MLK Came to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1964

Martin Luther King, Jr. during a press conference. Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-111157]
Martin Luther King, Jr. during a press conference. Photo: New York World-Telegram & Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress
Racism has been deep-rooted throughout the entire United States since European colonists first staked their claims here in the 1500s. On the West Coast of the US, it can be convenient to think that the South is where most of the serious discrimination took place, but this is simply not the case.

Although slavery for African Americans may have been largely confined to the South, other forms of blatant racial discrimination were not. In fact, Oregon was the only state in the Union whose 1859 constitution forbade black people to live, work, or own property in the state. It was illegal for black people even to move to Oregon until 1926. California is notorious for its horrible treatment of Chinese people in the 1800s, and, in the early 1900s, California, passed “alien land laws” that barred people who did not meet federal regulations for citizenship from owning property. This essentially meant non-whites, except people of African descent, because they were allowed to naturalize after the Civil War. These alien land laws were targeting Asians and, in particular, the Japanese, even though this was well before WWII.

Lawyer, Juichi Soyeda and Tadao Kamiya, in California, 1913, to lobby against the new Alien Land Law. Photo from the George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress.
Lawyer Juichi Soyeda, and Tadao Kamiya, 1913, lobby against the new Alien Land Law. Photo: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s finally forced the entire nation to look at and address the issue of racial discrimination. It began in the southern United States but spread through the entire country. The West Coast, and particularly the San Francisco Bay Area, had its share of protests. Civil rights struggles in other states led to demonstrations in the Bay Area, and people of all colors and backgrounds stood together to demand equality.

March on Washington August 28, 1963. Photo United States Information Agency.
March on Washington August 28, 1963. Photo: United States Information Agency

San Francisco Bay Area Supports the Southern Fight

People in the Bay Area supported the southern struggle in many ways. In large numbers, they joined the national 1960 boycott of Woolworth Company for denying the right of African Americans to eat at a lunch counter in North Carolina. In 1963, 2,500 people marched along Post Street in San Francisco to protest the Birmingham, Alabama bombing of four young African Americans girls. In 1965, after state troopers in Selma, Alabama brutally attacked 67 African American marchers during a nonviolent demonstration against voting rights discrimination, San Franciscan flooded the streets around their City Hall and demanded federal intervention for the racial violence in Selma.

Johnson's lack of intervention in Selma made waves across the country. Photo by Stanley Wolfson, New York World-Telegram & Sun
Johnson’s lack of intervention in Selma made waves across the country. Photo: Stanley Wolfson, New York World-Telegram & Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

A Civil Rights Fight Hits Home

The Bay Area was also home to racial discrimination in the job market, so San Franciscans led pickets, protests, and sit-ins at Mel’s Drive-In, the Sheraton Place, and the Bank of America in 1963 and 1964. The demonstrations were successful in getting companies to agree to nondiscrimination hiring practices. Some set goals of having a staff composed of 20% of people of color.

MLK to the Bay: Not Everybody Had a Dream

Although many Californian’s were fighting for civil rights, many were still resisting with all their might. The California Fair Housing Act, better known as the Rumford Act, was passed in 1963 . It was intended to eliminate discrimination in housing based on race, color, gender, religious beliefs, or national origin.

KKK members in San Francisco, California July 12, 1964. Photo from the U.S. News & World Report collection at the Library of Congress.
KKK members in San Francisco, California July 12, 1964. Photo: U.S. News & World Report Collection at the Library of Congress

Unfortunately, discriminatory housing practices were the norm in California, so even though the Rumford Act passed, Republican legislators had amended the bill to ensure that it did not apply to most forms of private and single family housing. Even with the exclusion of the majority of homes and neighborhoods, the California Real Estate Association immediately sponsored Proposition 14, proposing to amend the Constitution of the State of California to repeal the Rumford Act. They sold it as a property rights issue, and many large conservative groups supported the proposition, including the John Birch Society and the California Republican Assembly.

Afraid of the precedent California would set if Proposition 14 passed, Martin Luther King, Jr. came to San Francisco and spoke about the importance of the Rumford Act and how not having equality in housing practices would negatively affect the whole country. Despite his oratory skills, King’s speech didn’t convince enough Californians. Proposition 14 passed with a 65% majority vote in 1964.

However, Proposition 14 did not set a long-lasting precedent. Soon after, the federal government halted all federal funding for housing in California. In 1967, the California Supreme Court deemed the proposition unconstitutional because it violated the California constitution’s equal protection and due process provisions. This put a stop to California’s legal housing discrimination.

MLK’s Dream Comes True for the Nation

King's "I Have A Dream Speech" in Washington, 1963. Photo: work of the U.S. federal government.
King’s “I Have A Dream Speech” in Washington, 1963. Photo: United States Marine Corps

King’s dream of equality became a reality in the law as he watched President Lyndon Johnson sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on ethnicity, color, gender, or religion. Even though much work remained to enforce the federal mandate in specific state laws and on many fronts, King’s work put the nation on a new course. Racial discrimination was no longer acceptable under federal law.

Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Photo: Cecil Stoughton, White House Press Office (WHPO)
Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Photo: Cecil Stoughton, White House Press Office

Today, nearly 50 years after his assassination, King is honored for his work in the fight for racial equality. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a federal holiday annually celebrated on the third Monday of January. There are several places in California where you can join the celebrations:

San Francisco: Check the NorcalMLK Foundation website for a list of events in San Francisco that are sponsored by the foundation. The events are free and include a free Caltrain NorCalMLK Celebration Train ticket.

Santa Cruz: Martin Luther King Day of Service entries on the Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County website lists volunteer opportunities in honor of King in Santa Cruz County.

San Diego: See the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity website for details about the 36th Annual Dr. Martin Lither King Jr. Parade on Sunday, January 17th, 2:00-5:00 PM on Harbor Drive at the Emercadero.

Today’s Organizations that Promote Diversity

Learn what the National Coalition on School DIversity is doing today to help with the issues of racial isolation and lack of diversity in schools nationwide.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s wife, Coretta Scott King, created The King Center in Atlanta, Georgia to honor her husband’s legacy and encourage nonviolent problem solving.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights is a coalition of more than 200 organizations across the nation that work to ensure rights of all people in the US.

The National Fair Housing Alliance is a group of more than 220 organizations nationwide that are dedicated to ensuring fair housing across the US.

Updated August 9, 2016

  1. Sources

About The Author

Ranger Salazar

Lauren McEvoy is a naturalist and Santa Cruz native with a passion for teaching through writing. She graduated Cum Laude with a BA in Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2015. Lauren worked for Mobile Ranger as an intern and created a self-guided natural history tour of the UCSC campus. After graduation she has come back to Mobile Ranger to write and help things run smoothly.

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  1. Raymond Villamor

    It’s still a struggle. But it can be overcome. When l look at large, predominantly black communities with with abnormally high unemployment, I see where we as a nation have failed. Shipping hundreds of thousands of jobs out of the country has only made it more difficult to rectify the problem. We can improve our situation. It will take work. A lot of hard work.


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