Wednesday, July 1, 2015
The power of one person
The power of ONE…
“One person can make a difference and everyone should try.”
John F. Kennedy
On August 11, 1965 a routine traffic stop by police, triggered a race riot in a suburb of my hometown in Los Angeles. African Americans (then called Negroes) lived in semi-isolation in the Watts area of L.A. Unemployment was high, relations between the mostly white police department and the community was strained at best. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was in its infancy. The area was a powder keg.
Ugly rumors about the traffic stop grew, flew and ignited an explosion like we Angelenos had never known. For six days, as many as 10,000 rioters took to the streets in roving bands. By the time the riots ended, 34 people died, more than 1,000 were injured and 600-plus buildings were damaged or destroyed by fire and looting.
After the riot, racial tensions continued to simmer. Young men were still unemployed and turning to drugs, gangs and violence. Into this scene came a most unlikely peacemaker—“Big Willie” Robinson.
Willie, a Vietnam veteran and member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, came home to another kind of war. He was an imposing 300 pound, 6’6” gentle giant of a man— the kind of guy that could get gang members and cops to put down their weapons and shake hands. He also loved fast cars and soon made a name for himself in East L.A.’s street racing underground in his ’57 Chevy.
Veterans returning from WWII are credited with starting the hot rod racing craze. “My car is hotter than your car” conversations led them to the streets in competition for bragging rights. Later, in the 1950s my husband and his buddies raced after school in isolated areas and at night at Lion’s Drag strip in Long Beach. It was everything that a young man loves—speed and competition.
In 1966, a year after the riots, L.A. residents and politicians were desperate for ways to vent the Watt’s pressure cooker. Future mayor Tom Bradley (then a councilman) noticed that the local street-racing scene of hot rodders and drag racers attracted an integrated crowd. He and the council approached Robinson to stage a series of semi-legal street races at midnight on Fridays for all comers.
More than 10,000 people showed up on the first night! Thus was born the National and International Brotherhood of Street Racers. "Jalopnik" magazine, said membership was simple: pledge to race under safety supervision; abstain from alcohol, drugs, fighting; and NO squirreling during events (i.e. acting stupid while showing off).
In 1968, the program was credited to have helped L.A. keep order on the streets after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Cities like Chicago, Detroit and New York saw spikes in racial unrest.
Robinson worked for years to get a drag strip that could be operated with the low buck street racer in mind. In 1974, he finally saw his dream come true on Terminal Island outside L.A. The track was short on amenities but it was a true melting pot for the car culture. There, on their own turf, guys could quasi-legally drag race off the city streets without the dangers of illegal racing.
Big Willie Robinson, street racer and peacemaker, died on May 21, 2012 at the age of 69. He helped thousands of men to build a brotherhood through street racing. “When you get around cars, man, there isn’t no colors, just engines,” he told the L.A. Times in 1981.
The power of one person to make a difference under pressure cooker circumstances always amazes me. Last month, the whole world sat up and paid attention when Ms Toya Graham chased down and stopped her son as he took part in the Baltimore riots. I nominate her for mother of the year!
The riots began when Freddie Gray, a 25-year old African American resident of Baltimore, died in police custody a week after being arrested. Gray reportedly was in good health prior to his arrest but possibly incurred neck and spine injuries while being transported to jail. He later fell into a coma and died. Charges have been filed against six police officers.
Irate citizens initially protested peacefully. Once charges were filed against the police the scene turned ugly. Angry crowds took to the streets in massive acts of violence, vandalism, looting and arson. In the end, everyone suffered—police, rioters, innocent civilians and shopkeepers. There were no winners.
Well, maybe one. Score one for mothers! I loved Toya Graham, rushing into the fray to do what she could. She didn’t rush out to beat up the police, or the protestors or shopkeepers. No, she zeroed in to stop the only person that she had any control over—her son. Her actions went viral, giving us all a lesson in love and wisdom.
Graham, a single mother of six children, spotted her 16-year old son Michael wearing a hoodie and mask. She said, “I just lost it. I was shocked, I was angry, because you never want to see your child out here doing that. I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray…I’m a no-tolerant mother.”
It’s that reputation that made her son wince the second he saw her. He said, “when I seen you, ma, my instinct was to run.” Photos show her whacking and herding him out of the crowd and home where they watched and discussed the riots play out on television. I can only imagine what was said.
Graham hopes that with the perspective of time it will be a teachable moment for her son. I’m thinking that it’s a teachable moment for all of us: Respect one another, play by the rules, don’t hurt others, make a scene for a good cause but start the training at home.
God bless the peacemakers. They make a difference. It’s a task for each of us to try.
Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.