By Ayala Feder-Haugabook
The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. To many, this meant the end of segregation, discrimination, and general inequality. No longer could people be discriminated against because of race, skin color, religion, or gender. Following 1964, many changes were made, mostly in favor of the Civil Rights Act. President Johnson introduced “Affirmative Action” in 1965, the Black Panthers arose in 1966, and the term “black power” was coined. However, living without discrimination was still not entirely the case for many African Americans across America following the passing of the Civil Rights Act. African Americans still went through challenges finding their places in an essentially all-white society.
This picture is of a protest of the racism surrounding the Golden Gate Bridge. Jimmie Lee Wilkins, James Haugabook, my father, and Paul Powell led the protest. The Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, and this picture was taken on May 26th 1967, which was a day before the bridge’s 30th anniversary. 1967 was right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, so bridge officials and workers now had to deal with racism. This protest was the result of a long series of court cases and testimonies regarding unfair treatment and termination of certain Golden Gate Bridge painters. James Adam, the bridge official of the time, refused to hire James Haugabook, who was an African American painter from the Local 4 of the Painter’s Union of San Francisco, from where Adams requested candidates. However, Adams hired less qualified white painters who applied at the same time as Haugabook. Union officials accused Adams of being racist in his hiring process and the case was taken to the California Fair Employment Practice Commission (FECP), which revised the case for five months. The Commission demanded that Adams hire Haugabook and compensate him for the lost employment time. Adams refused, which led to a hearing in March of 1966, resulting in Adams’s embarrassing testimony. He finally agreed to hire Haugabook but still did not take any liability. Haugabook was hired immediately and sent to work in difficult situations.
The racism charges did not stop after Haugabook’s hiring, though. Jimmie Lee Wilkins, another African American painter, came forward with his case. He was hired shortly after Haugabook’s first complaint and was asked to lie about his experience painting on the bridge for Haugabook’s court case. He claims that he was hired to show how fair the bridge was in hiring painters during the scandal. Wilkins ended up signing a document that reflected what the bridge officials wanted his experience to seem like, but Wilkins was terminated right before the end of his six-month probationary period when he would have been granted job benefits. This gave him the change of mind to come forward against the bridge. The National Alliance for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) became involved with this case with the FECP, and Wilkins was eventually rehired. Wilkins and Haugabook faced difficult working conditions and were both surprisingly terminated a year later, in March 1967. They, along with white painter Paul Powell, were deemed “incompetent”. Haugabook and Wilkins were described as being just as able as their peers to work on the bridge, and Powell claimed he was called “incompetent” for standing up for his black colleagues when they were faced with unfair and harsh working conditions. Powell also claimed that he was fired for this and to show that the bridge officials weren’t discriminatory in firing painters. These events are what sparked the nonviolent protest across the bridge, which is pictured.
This picture has significance to me because of the fact that it is my father who went through this. He was one of the first African American painters to paint on the Golden Gate Bridge, which is quite substantial. I always heard about this when I was little, however I had not known how much he had to go through until I did some research of my own. I consider myself honored to have a personal connection to the Civil Rights Era and Movement. My father lived during a time of difficulty for African Americans, and he essentially made his way up through standing up for himself and for what he believed was fair and equal. I think this mindset is also a characterization of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.
My mother keeps a copy of the book in our home. A photographer from the San Francisco Chronicle took the original picture, and it is featured in the book, Paying the Toll: Local Power, Regional Politics, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Louise Nelson Dyble, an urban historian, wrote the book. It is an expose of the Golden Gate Bridge, which is quite interesting because the book covers all aspects of the Golden Gate Bridge, like racism, corruption, and greed, and not simply the nice tourist facets. Paying the Toll was the only piece of writing that I could find that touched upon the racism of bridge officials and general employment for painters and bridge workers. Even San Francisco, the “most liberal city”, has its flaws and a history of racism, which a part of is touched upon in the book.
The photograph reflects the Civil Rights Era, which can be categorized into three different views that African Americans, and allies, had during the time. The Right, or conservative view, wanted full African American participation across the board. The NAACP and the National Urban League were two liberal integrationist groups whose views reflected these ideas. They wanted to make black integration acceptable to liberal white establishment, corporations, and the Democratic Party. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, created by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was part of the Center. The SCLC wanted to achieve full citizenship rights for blacks and integrate into all aspects of life and society. These groups engaged in many forms of nonviolent social protest. The Left was the radical part of the Civil Rights Era. The SNCC, or Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was a leftist group that engaged in nonviolent, group-centered leadership. The Left essentially was comprised of black radicals who wanted to create an entirely different system.
The protest pictured here would most likely fall under the Center. The protesters are engaging in a nonviolent protest over the painter’s unfair termination. Wilkins, Haugabook, and Powell believed that they were fired for racist, discriminatory reasons. From class readings, we have learned that a common theme in the Civil Rights Movement was working across differences. The painters were de-emphasizing their differences and coming together for a unified cause. Powell, a white painter, essentially lost his job for standing up for his black colleagues. Wilkins and Haugabook both had separate cases but still managed to come together to fight for their rights. Like in Fannie Lou Hamer’s 1964 Address, the protest is making demands that address institutional racism. The protesters are demanding that people be treated equally in terms of employment, whether white or black. This picture is important to the era because it shows white and black protesters coming together to demonstrate. Even though discrimination and racism was not solved by 1967, this picture shows how much America has grown since slaves were first brought over, in the sense that white people and black people were working together to end discrimination.
An interesting aspect of this photograph is that it is timeless. It was taken in 1967, however I have seen similar images between that time period and up to today. Everywhere in America, African Americans are still protesting for their rights and for fair treatment. It is sad to say, but things have not gotten much better for African Americans since the 1960s. Many themes that were present during that era are still present today. It is still extremely powerful and uniting for African Americans to protest, though. We have not given up and will not be any time soon.
Dyble, Louise Nelson. Paying the Toll: Local Power, Regional Politics, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 2009. Print.
Fannie Lou Hamer’s Speech at the 1964 DNC. YouTube, 16 Nov. 2009. Web. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TchoKJrvFQ>.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. “Introduction to African American Studies.” AFRAM 101 Lecture. University of Washington, Seattle. 2015.