- @ CYNTHIA ADINA KIRKWOOD
Black Man Stands Ground
Despite night-time telephone intruders “calling me all kinds of niggers,” Ernest S. McBride refused to compromise.
He endured the names and the threats and sacrificed time with his family for the betterment of the larger black community.
McBride, 73, the co-founder of the Long Beach chapter of the National Association for the Advancemnt of Colored People, is one of a handful of black leaders who, for decades, defied a segment of white Long Beach that told them that they were inferior.
McBride, Annie Sawyer, John Grigsby and Zelda Lipscomb of Long Beach, Nathan Holly of Los Angeles and the late Roscoe Hayes and L.J. Jones challenged racial discrimination in jobs and housing.
In the end, they and many others across the country won many victories. But the fight was long and hard.
A period of particular enmity was the late 1940s and early 1950s, said McBride who, during an energetic, five-hour monologue, chronicled the struggles in his community.
“Many times during those days, I used to have to take the telephone off the hook,” said McBride, jiggling a crossed leg feverishly under a mahogany table in his dining room.
“They wanted to send me . . . back to Africa,” he said. “The minute I answered the telephone, they started off on a tirade. . .
“Only once in my life have I been concerned about my life,” he said. “A white fellow who was a janitor in City Hall, a real old fellow, came to me one night. He described a black minister to me.”
The minister had been asked by a local white official, “Is McBride a Communist?” the janitor told McBride. The minister told the official that “everybody thinks he is.”
“And then, another white fellow who worked for the city called on me,” said McBride. “He told me, ‘You be careful how you go out at night. Always have somebody go out with you. Don’t go out alone. You’re a marked man in Long Beach.’ It bothered me. I went out, but I was pretty careful for awhile.”
Threats and abusive telephone calls plagued the McBride home after he helped organize a nine-month boycott of Cole’s Market, which refused to hire black clerks in the 1940s.
With McBride on that Westside picket line, Lillian, his wife of 48 years, was left to take the calls. “I have to give a lot of credit to my wife for enduring some of those things.”
His eyes went soft when he looked into the next room at Lillian, who was sewing silently and listening. She lifted her eyes to meet his and smiled.
Then, McBride returned to his tale of the Cole Market boycott, sometimes asking his wife for detail.
“Another (picketer’s) wife heckled him so, they took a trip to Alabama,” said McBride. “Then, he started preaching to get the pressure off of him. I asked him what that was going to do. He said a preacher can speak his mind, he can say anything. They can’t bother a preacher. But I never did get that bad to want to become a preacher.”
McBride straightened himself as he recalled his efforts to end the grocery boycott.
“Funny thing, when we started picketing those markets, (the late Otha Cole) told us about how he was born and raised. He said he had worked around Negroes ever since he was 14 years old and never knew one who didn’t steal. That was the same day a (white) Congressman had been sent to jail for embezzlement.
“He said, ‘I never saw them do anything but grease wagon wheels and sweep floors.’ I admitted we did that well because we’d done it all our lives.
“We negotiated two, three months,” said McBride, stroking his gray hair. “Then he stopped talking. He’d cuss me out on the telephone. ‘You and your Communists can go to hell.’ I never did cuss him ‘til the last day.
“During the time I was picketing this place . . . one of our black ministers brought a message that Mr. Cole would give $2,000 to stop this thing right where it was.
“So, I looked at Joe Croom and Joe looked at me. I shook my head at Joe. Joe said, ‘Reverend, the only reason we’re picketing this place is because they don’t hire Negroes.’ He asked us to put our hands on the Bible and swear not to tell who told us. I said, ‘I swear I won’t tell who but I will tell what. Mr. Cole finally knuckled under and hired blacks, but he went out of business.”
Blacks often had difficulty finding jobs of any kind, said the Little Rock, Arkansas, native, who moved to Long Beach 52 years ago. One of McBride’s first jobs was shining shoes “down there where the City Hall is on West Broadway. I rented the place in front of a barber shop.
“There just wasn’t any jobs for black men,” said McBride, a high school graduate who had planned to study law after finding steady work. “They had a few cleaning up. But your oil industry, your auto industry – none of them hired black men, not even dusting off cars.
“There were very few janitors in the shipyards. In those early days, they had a fishing industry out of San Pedro and some out of Long Beach. But no black people worked in them.
“We had two people working for the city. One of them cleaned the public restroom downtown, and the other one cleaned up a restroom at Belmont Shore.”
By 1941, McBride was an electrician at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, and he helped desegregate the labor unions there. But activism was taking time away from his family.
“I’d come home right after work,” he said. “My wife would have dinner on the table. And at the same time, I worked extra jobs to support my family. Many times, she’d be in bed when I left in the morning and she’d be in bed when I got home.
“At times, especially when I was with the dry dock . . . my wife didn’t even know where the meetings were. Many times, she asked, ‘Where are you going tonight?’ and I’d say, ‘I can’t tell.’ And many times, somebody would call and say they were supposed to be at the meeting but they forgot where it was.
“When a person gets so tied up into what he’s doing, he’ll forget about other things. I didn’t have any problem with the (five) kids, and my wife understood. One of the things I kept up front was that I was fighting for something to benefit the future of my kids.”
McBride left the South to escape its strict racial segregation.
“I resisted the social life and the way blacks were treated there on the whole,” he said. ”I felt I wouldn’t be safe in the South if I stayed.”
But Long Beach enforced its own code of racism.
“Long Beach was one of the roughest spots,” said McBride. “At night, the police was searching you. And there was intimidation from the police department. I had friends in L.A. who said that if they were going to San Diego, they wouldn’t go through Long Beach. . . Every time a Negro was picked up in Long Beach, he was charged with rape.”
McBride also criticized local courts for handing out lighter prison sentences to blacks for crimes against other blacks.
“A Negro jumped on his wife and beat her with a broomstick and shot her in the head and killed her. They gave that Negro six months. . . They were more interested in getting Negroes out of Long Beach than out of crime.”
Segregation also dictated where the city’s blacks could live.
“This black section (in the central area) was set up by Long Beach,” said McBride. “It wasn’t set up by black people. When we came here, there wasn’t any certain place. Some lived on Pacific Coast Highway, some on Grand Avenue, some on Gaviota, Pine and Locust. I rented a place on Pine.
“But eventually, they settled around 12th and California. When Miss Howard bought a big rooming house, they sent them all there. And there was a black café and a beer joint and things down there.
“If you were caught up in another area after dark, they would take you downtown and fingerprint you. We organized the NAACP in 1940. That’s when we started a program against police harassment. That’s when we set up a meeting with the city manager.”
Blacks often had problems when looking for a place to live – even in the central area.
“In 1934, we rented a house on 21st and Lewis and when we went there to clean it up, the Realtor told us we couldn’t rent in Long Beach. He told us to go to Wilmington.”
That message lived through World War II.
“Long Beach had the only (wartime public) housing project west of the Mississippi River that I knew of . . . that was completely segregated,” said McBride, who worked with the Anti-Discrimination Committee of the Cabrillo housing project.
“Cabrillo 1 was for Negroes, and Cabrillo 2 and 3 was for whites,” he said. “They weren’t even letting them into Carmelitos (housing project). They were claiming the families were too big. We broke them down. The city finally let them move into Cabrillo 2 and 3.”
When the war ended and the Cabrillo project closed, most black residents moved outside of Long Beach “because they didn’t have any place to go.
“For black people, that was one of the problems we had after World War II. There was a definite effort by higher-ups to flood out the black people to Compton.”
McBride fought the battle on his home front when he bought his present house on the 1400 block of Lemon Avenue.
“When I moved in here in ’49, they (neighbors) circulated a petition around here,” he said. “We had children. And the black fellow who lived in here didn’t have any children. They said they didn’t want no noise. So they went to him to get him to sign this petition. He told them he wasn’t going to sign it. He wasn’t going to fall for that. After they left him, they tore up the petition.”
However, McBride’s next-door neighbor continued to wage his own fight to move the family out.
“He used to call the police department if we were up at 10, 11 o’clock at night. We’d be talking just like this. I’d walk outside and see the police peeping in. I invited them in and asked them what they wanted. They’d say, ‘We’ve been out there a long time. We got a call. But we don’t see anything wrong.’
“Finally, the city attorney sent me a letter. The neighbour was complaining about me. In the letter, it said the lady was sick and that I was having wild parties. I notified them right then that their office was not going to make me move from here. I bought this place for a home. The neighbourhood does not have to concede to her. If she’s so sick, let her go to a hospital.”
In 1940, McBride and a few others overcame obstacles to organize a key force in the black community’s struggle – the Long Beach chapter of the NAACP.
“The first stumbling block was that other blacks in the community had solicited money for the NAACP and nothing ever came of it,” McBride said. “And the people never got their money back.
“The next thing is that people who were working for the city were being questioned about it. A lot of them were afraid to be associated with an organization that wasn’t approved. . . City bosses would ask questions about the organizations they belong to and did they belong to the NAACP. They wouldn’t go out and tell you not to join. But the way they’d ask would make you think.”
At one point, McBride was told that postal officials had compiled a list of people receiving NAACP mailings.
“This Negro who worked down there . . . didn’t want me to send him any notices. But he said he’d be at the meeting next Sunday.”
McBride would walk the community during the evening, trying to convince his neighbors to join the NAACP.
“Then we had a threat from one of the black ministers who went from door to door, telling people not to go (to an NAACP meeting) because the police were going to arrest everybody there,” said McBride.
“We had one of the biggest crowds we’ve ever had. We had a churchful, about 70, 80 people. That was the Sunday I read the whole record of police brutality. And I had a great response from the crowd. They were glad to see that we just didn’t give up and fall from this idea.”
Today, the struggle continues.
It has been partially successful – “Long Beach has changed.” But problems persist.
Treatment of blacks by police remains a sore point, McBride said.
“We (NAACP) have more and more complaints. . . .The remarks they’re making, ‘nigger’ and other name calling. You can have a black officer right there and a white officer will be calling you names in the community.”
A number of more serious allegations also have been filed with the NAACP. However, the NAACP board has responded cautiously, said McBride, who remains a board member.
“We couldn’t get any enthusiasm from the executive board,” said McBride, referring to a recent complaint. “I felt that enthusiasm from the board was basically being handicapped by this black police chief (Charles Ussery Jr.) we got up there.
“Because we have a black police chief, the majority of people who would be coming out against the department aren’t. They figure it might hurt him.”
The fact that about 700 blacks now work for the city reflects gains, but their hiring has tended to stifle criticism, said McBride.
“I was offered two or three jobs by the city,” said McBride, who retired as a truck driver 10 years ago. He turned down the offers, he said, because a city employee has “got to dance to the music.”
Blacks make up about 18 percent of the city government’s work force, though only 11 percent of the total city population and 7 percent of the adult population. Most black city workers hold maintenance or clerical jobs.
McBride, who has fought so many battles, also fears that the civil rights struggle is not as compelling to today’s young blacks. He has scolded his own children about not pressing to advance the movement.
“They’re getting satisfied with doing better and living better,” he said. “I’ve even had them tell me, ‘I didn’t get this job because of civil rights, I got it because I’m qualified.’
“Somebody’s got to fight for the right to use education as well as get it.”
(This piece was first published by the Long Beach Press-Telegram on January 14, 1983.)