Segregation in the 1960s

One Man's Personal View on Racism


Jordan Rodgers:  This is Sidney Pelston and this is going to be an oral history on his experiences with racism in America.  I'm Jordan Rodgers and this is Caitlin Playstead.  Let's begin!

 

Caitlin Playstead:  All right, so we want to start with asking you any stories that come to mind initially of what you saw of segregation in the South, right?  What state were you in in the South?

 

Sidney Pelston:  Well it's… going back we really hadn't experienced much racism in California.  It's never been an (inaudible word).  I mean it's there, it's kind of deep down you might say.  But the, I recall an event.  I used to compete as a runner in high school and college, and I remember one time one of my teammates, black teammate, I brought him home for lunch one day.  My parents didn't know I was bringing anyone or if they did, they didn't know who, certainly didn't know he was colored.  And, when I got home, I could see there was a certain discomfort.  They wouldn't say anything, but a certain discomfort.  I remember that to this day that I had never thought my parents in being any way prejudice, but yet that underlining feeling was there.  And I remember the KKK how we used to read, whether it be movies, and just by sense of outrage how these people would even be allowed to exist as an organization, and how they had to hide their faces, and I wish sometimes they would rip those masks off, and kill em'.  I mean they didn't deserve to be alive the way they treated other people.  So I wrote something in high school, no college.  UCLA.  And it was called Youth Speaks on Segregation and it was talking about the KKK and my view of it.  And I was in the, prepared to go in the reserve, and the Sargent at UCLA that headed up our unit, I showed him how to read it.  And what was his response?  He said, "Would you like your daughter to marry one of them?"  I said that's not the point.  The point is how people are treated, and I just remembered that.  And upon graduation UCLA 1960, so were talking about 53 years ago, I was going to be stationed at Fort Benning, which is Columbus Georgia, 1960.  And I had never personally experienced segregation or racism or really terrible mistreatment of anyone and I'm glad I didn't, I'm sure if I did my nature would be to take a position.  I could never just sit back and let someone really abuse someone else.  So in 1960, we headed, three of us, to Fort Benning Georgia, and we stopped in Texas, for the restroom, and if we were walking I would see Men, Women, and Colored.  And I had never really realized that before and then I saw the water fountains.  Colored and white.  It kind of just, thinking of how these people are, how they really think.  It was upsetting.  We get to Columbus, and I could see most of the kids there, the kids, they're privates, 18, 19, 20 years old, you could see how they reacted to other blacks, and probably the most interesting experience I had was some of these really bad people, as far as attitude, how they treated other people.  All of a sudden, they're company commander was a black company commander and you could imagine what would have happened there, because this guy had the power over these people.  That brought me great joy.  Racism is one thing but then you look at how people treat other people with mental illnesses or anything that may be funny about them.  I don't know about you but, whenever I see someone who stutters, or whatever, people make fun of him, and you know if you could put yourself in that position, how would you think, how would you feel, when something about you, who you are, and people laughing at you, making fun of you, you don't want to go to school, but you have to go to school.  In the army, I was an officer and one of the privates, his name was... don't laugh, male, Shirley Petenguil, and everyone made fun of him, fun of him and not around me, 'cause if anyone around me, he'd have gone down for 20 pushups and he'd never do it again.  And I tried as much as I could, he was a nice young man and he looked, he looked feminine, and of course the name, and I have no idea... if her were gay or whatever because it was never really exhibited, but they treated him so badly, he hung himself. That he committed suicide and it was devastating that I couldn't have done more. I don't know what else I could have done. So those are some of the things from my own personal experience... it's a sense of outrage that people are like that. But why are they like that? Do they- are they born like that? NO. Its how they are raised. It's the... whether it be the schools, or the parents, or whatever. And I ran track in the army in Fort Benning. And most of the track team were black- and we would travel together to other posts in universities, where we competed.  And when we traveled, we always traveled in uniform, we always had our weapons. And one time, I'm not sure if Georgia or Alabama, we stopped to get a drink at a bar.  And when we walked in, they refused to serve the blacks. These were soldiers of the United States army, they refused to serve them. And they refuse to even let them stay and I remember that I, again I was outraged. And I went up to the counter, with my weapon and I started to make a point and one of the black soldiers put his hand on my shoulder and 'Sir, It's not worth it, let's just go.' And it, I mean I remember those things so vividly to this day. And then we were going to a track meet at Tuskegee University, and that's an all-black university and highly recognized. And my team mates were probably all black. And I was white. I was white then too.

 

Everyone: Giggling

 

SP: And going to the cafeteria, everyone's talking, talking. We walked in, and here, a white. It was silence. Silence at that moment..
(Laughing)

We didn't do anything, we sat down, and then everything resumed as normal. And I thought to myself, what would happen if that was an all-white university, and a black came in... that didn't belong. You think that when they sat down, the whites would have just gone back to normal? I doubt it. I think they'd have been an appall- a hostility.  "What's this person doing here?" and maybe that would add a little levity to it.
It had rained and the track was all muddy and we ran track, and of course everyone's black, except me when running, but by the time we finished with the muddy track, I was as black as they were. So, they took a picture, I t was kind of funny, we all looked the same. So that was a little bit of, of some bad experience in the south, I- and how people treat other people and while at UCLA, one of my teammates was a man named Rayfer Johnson, I don't know if any of you know Rayfer Johnson, but Rayfer Johnson, in 1960, won the gold medal of the [unclear], when they had the Olympics in Los Angeles, he was the one who went up and lit the torch. He was president of the UCLA student body and, black, so I've been blessed to know some extremely competent, skilled, black people in my life. And I think that if those who had racial prejudice would ever  really allow them self to get to know other people, it would virtually disappear. So, that's one little part of my history with, racism in America and just how people treat other people , I could never relate to it. I could never relate to how people can hate that much; how they can despise that much of someone they don't know.

 

CP: When- when you were in the reserve, you were serving with African Americans right? Were- was there any tension within the men you were working with? Because they were African American serving alongside white men? Or was it like everyone was treating each other respectfully because they were all serving together?

 

SP:

Very respectfully, in the army and I related again to my experience in the track team, high school, valley high school UCLA. You're team mates. And here, you're soldiers, because you've serving together. So other than when I was in Columbus, where you're in the deep south did I ever see any mistreatment between blacks and whites. It put people in an environment where you're side by side, day after day, after day, after day, that prejudice just starts to fade, it's just an automatic phenomenon, it's like if there's someone you've seen and you don't like and all the sudden you're confronted and you have to talk to them. And you shake their hand... It all changes all of a sudden. All these perceptions that you had, that were in your head change with reality and I think racism is the same way. As we create more and more interaction between people, there's more and more likelihood that we will tend to be a more human society. Humanity may become more human. All though... I have my doubts.

 

CP: When you were just walking down the street, did you notice any mannerisms of like how the African Americans , as they walked down the street, walked passed anyone who was white, did they do anything differently than how a white person would walk past a white person? Or...?

 

SP: I think that whites in general, especially women and, especially at night, a black man, they will feel a sense of fear. They will tend to watch and part of it, I imagine is somewhat justified, 'cause proportionally, you would have more blacks proportionally than whites who may cause problems or be out or what are there drugs or what are there whatever, again, its a problem with society, as far as you take away opportunity for people, you have to have a decent life, often you force people with a very different life who have become a terror to other people, but I know even myself, If I'm walking... I'll go back to 1968, in Detroit, Michigan. Not a very good town when it comes to bad part of Detroit. And u remember once, I was walking and it turned out it was in a very very bad area and I didn't know it. And there were a couple of black men started to come towards me and started to call out to me and I felt a sense of a sense of fear and I didn't give it a chance, I took off like a bat out of hell. And got out of there...[unclear] because even with my feeling, and certainly, don't ever accuse me of racism or a sense of segregation, it's always outraged me. But, I felt a sense of fear. Because I was in the wrong area and they knew I was in the wrong area. So I figured, as they say, the abundance of caution.

 

CP: So were there any other circumstances where you were working, like serving alongside with African Americans and did they ever tell you about their back story of maybe why they joined the reserves? Did they tend to have a reason for wanting to fight for their country? Or did they... Mostly what I'm trying to get at were they, did they give you the feeling that they disliked their country in anyway because of the racism that affected them?

 

SP: No, I never got a feeling that they disliked the country at all. And a lot of it will have gone into the service because they had no other choice. It's the service, or its prison, there's no jobs, so I think that a lot of, a large proportion of blacks probably chose service. And it probably saved their life, but I don't think in general, they would have done it for love of country or anything. I think it was just [unclear]. Now maybe some was good training, it was good education, for when you go into service, you can be educated and get grants and such.  But the um, and again it was hard for me to describe it because I live in an area where it's not as violent as it is, but when you think of the South, when you think of the killings, and you think that if a black even looked at a white woman, he could be lynched.  I mean it was crazy, what kind of a country do we live in, you know?  How can people get to be so warped, but they are, and maybe the more you talk about something, and, and again I don't know if these people ever change.  If you give people who are so enveloped in hate, do they ever change?  Is it possible to even change, I don't have that answer.  But if you like to think that anything is possible and there is some part of everyone that is potentially good, you know.

 

CP:  Um, my question just escaped my mind.

 

SP:  But it's, it's, not I might add, that it's not just blacks.  It's anybody different.  Whether it's a different religion, a different race.  And we all had probably had experiences where there's been friction within families if they, if a family marry outside of their religion.  You probably had personal experiences where uh, there's sometimes disowned.  Or there's spouses not accepted in the family, and over time maybe it starts to change.  But I think that's, that's part of what a lot of people, a lot of children will do is if they live in a family that's very rigid, a lot of times they marry outside of what their family wants, because it's the only power they have.  They can't do anything in the family.  I know in my family, a sister, and brother in law, very very rigid, and they had three children.  And it was a Jewish family.  One son married a catholic woman, one daughter married a Japanese, and the other daughter married a Mexican.  To me that was rebellion against, and, so who knows where it all starts.  I mean, it probably started going back to the cavemen when you think of how people mistreated other people.  People with power, tend to use that power.

 

CP:  Did you ever have any circumstances where, like you heard stories about like what people, members of the KKK were doing?  I got the impression that you didn't really have any, like you didn't ever come in contact or see anything that they did but did you hear stories from any friends or while you were serving that really impacted you? 

 

SP:  I had no direct experience with KKK, just the readings and the stories, and it was, I don't remember what I wrote, but in this Youth Speaks in Segregation I quoted a lot of things, I wrote, it was about 5-6 pages and maybe 3, 4, 5 years later Lyndon Johnson was president and a friend of mine brought a copy of, from the newspaper, of the speech he wrote.  And this person had what I wrote, "Look at this, he almost quoted you," I mean years ago, again it's just personal interest, but years ago, before then, it's there. It's all what we can really do ourselves, what's important to us. 

 

JR:  What was it like knowing that the black men, black soldiers who you were with were being discriminated against and were not given the full rights that the white people in the south would have given you?

 

SP:  Well I was only in active duty for six months, and most of it was in Fort Ord California, which is near Monterey in California, so I didn't have a lot of direct experience, I never saw any real mistreatment between whites and blacks, I mean here, especially in the service, it would never be tolerated.  It's never tolerated.  And if you think back to the service, I'm not sure how many of you know anything about the Tuskegee Airmen and that story.  Part of its true, and what I've read from historians a lot of it's not true, but it still showed how a black unit was formed in the second world war to fight against the Nazis.  And they were given old broken down planes, everyone else were given regular planes and no one wanted them, the blacks, because they were considered inferior.  And here again you're talking about blacks and they're fighting for their country.  They were a fighter squadron, and their role was to protect the bombers, and they were out bombing because Souza bombers would enter enemy airspace, the fighters would come to attack, and the American fighters were there to protect the bombers.  And, no one wanted these blacks because they were inferior, yet one day, the white fighter squadron, for some reason, was not available, I don't even remember why, maybe they didn't get there in time.  They had to take the blacks, reluctantly.  The folklore says that the blacks never lost a bomber, although I think that's probably not true, but in general they fought as well as any white, and it just goes to show that if anyone is given a chance, but how we treated them, no one wanted them, we gave them broken down planes, and they had to prove themselves.  They really shouldn't have had to prove themselves; it should never have been that way in the first place.

 

CP:  As you were raising your family, did you think about, as you were raising your children about how they were raising their children, like what kind of world they were raising their children in, and how different that might have been, or like how your friends grew up versus how you grew up.  Do you think that there was like this major difference if they were African American and you were white, did you ever talk to them about the differences and how you two grew up?

 

SP:  I don't think it ever really came up in dialogue because living in this state, southern California; you didn't have the circumstances come about that would trigger that kind of a dialogue.  But I know that if I had been invited to lunch or dinner with a black family, it was always very comfortable.  And it's hard for me to relate to how some people treat other people so badly and what their upbringing is.  I mean look at the slave ships from Africa, look at , stick hundreds of these people underground, or below surface, I mean I could never really get to a point of how people could be that cruel.  And all I could say is that we hope that as we have this kind of a dialogue, that we think a little bit more towards how we treat other people.  And again as I mention, not just the blacks but anybody who's different.

 

Phone Rings

 

 

SP:  I don't think you can help it, whether you think about it or not, sub consciously I think as you get into a dialogue, people tend to change, because they don't want to be, can you imagine what it would take to take someone who looked at a white woman, and you were going to lynch em'?  Can you imagine the mentality there, I mean you didn't do anything wrong so what was it?  Upbringing.  So if anything, for young people today, as we approach more adult hood and families, maybe the best thing we can take out of this little visit today is that, is that our families that we raise will never have any of these characteristics, that we'll always stand up against injustice.

 

CP:  Did your children ever have any circumstance where they were surprised, like when they were first hearing these stories about, when they were learning it in school about the way people were treated and how the lynching's, and just general racism, because they grew up in an environment that wasn't quite like that, right?  So, were they ever shocked and came to you to ask questions about that?

 

SP:  I doubt it, I don't really, it's not a subject that was well enough addressed in my opinion, because how do you counteract evil if you don't overwhelm it with good.  So, I've been blessed by not having had my family or really having seen it anything like it, whether than my experiences in the south, which they were not terrible it's just unfortunate, but it exists today.  I mean, 53 years how much have really changed in the south, yea they don't lynch em' so much anymore, but they probably still do here and there, except for the KKK with their silly robes.  Which I'd like it to be red instead of white, reason its red is it's because it's like on (fire with them still in it).  I feel kind of strongly about that subject, you can tell.

 

JR:  So this is Charlie Craft and will be asking a question.

 

Charlie Craft:  So this interested me a little bit.  So you grew up in a racist, you witnessed racism growing up and now today, it's less, but it's still going on a little bit, but how do you feel when people use racism in comedy, but when they don't mean it.  What do you feel about that? 

 

SP:  I feel they do mean it, I don't think anything is an accident.  I think it's accidental that they said what they feel.  Anytime someone, someone is not going to say something that is racist, unless they are a strict comedian and it's in the middle of comedy but when it pops out, something…

 

CC:  I meant like a comedian, doing standup or something like that, they make a racist joke or a stereotypical joke, how do you feel about that?

 

SP:  I resent it, because its disrespectful of the history and what these people have had to experience.  Sure you're making it into a joke and maybe we should accept it as a joke, but the only one I can accept making a joke about a black, is a black.  I mean that's kind of spitting in their face, but a white, I think that's out of bounds, it's just out of bounds, and someone who would do that, I wonder if deep inside, it doesn't reflect a part of who they are, otherwise they would make there joke about something or somebody else.  But that's a good question because it comes up all the time, I mean even in the last presidential election, look what came up about the 70%.  When people say something that they don't think people are hearing, then they say well we didn't mean that, of course they meant that.  Anytime time someone says something, in my mind it reflects of very much of who they are and what they mean.  But that was one of the most significant because it probably cost the man the election.  That one comment, it never went away.  Whether true or not it never went away. 

 

CP:  You told us a story about how when you went into the bar, and they wouldn't serve African American and how your friend put his hand on your shoulder.  Were the African Americans serving with you often very, would they just let it go, the things that they were seeing, because they were next to you, they were seeing the three different types of bathrooms, they were seeing segregation for color, were they just, would they just let it go and they just didn't like it bother them because they didn't have to deal with on a daily basis?

 

SP:  Good question, and basically they let it go, because there's nothing they could do to change it, so therefor it is what it is.  Like, sir, it's not worth it.  I mean, I'm not sure what I would have done, I mean our guns weren't loaded, still a rifle, and you're in uniform, I mean today I just can't imagine anyone having a right to tell a uniformed soldier serving this country, "You can't be in my place of business."  But blacks, here, you're not going to see that, here no one will tolerate it.  They would blow up a building that has those signs on it rather than tolerate it.  But the, I don't remember anytime the blacks in the south really being upset about it, and I had a lot of interaction, I mean I was an officer so these were part of my team and, it never existed in my platoon.  I remember in 1960, we were engaged in (inaudible) escape and invasion, training, they would drop you from a helicopter, and you got to find your way to friendly lines which were like 2-3 miles away, at night.  And the enemy is all over the place, and if they catch you, they pull you aside and take you to a compound, they kick you, they'll push you around, and maybe after a couple hours they then send you out again, and you're really battered.  There were four of us together, and one of the four was a black man.  There's camaraderie, when you're together like that in the service and you have a common enemy, in fact that's always it, if you have a common enemy.  The enemy of my enemy is my friend.  And that was the case there.  In the service, it was a great place for people to get along, and you have to depend on each other, someone's firing at you and you don't want this black guy to help protect you?  Damn right you want this guy in here covering your back.  Hopefully it gets better, but that's the experience I had, I'm glad I didn't have an experience where I saw people really beaten.  The worst thing in the world would have been, to see someone being beaten and having a number of people there involved and knowing you couldn't do anything about it.  As soon as you tried, you get beaten to, and you couldn't train the course of events.  That would destroy me not doing something I would want to do and realize I can't make any difference, while I sacrifice myself.

 

JR:  Were there any times in which you experienced some sort of segregation or segregation against anyone in which you did wish you could have gone back and done something?

 

SP:  No, if I had, if I saw it and had any ability to change it, I would step in.  Again I am a little radical when it comes to injustice or people treating other people, and people taking advantage, it's really the strong preying on the weak.  Just a thought of how people years ago, maybe in the early 1960's, had a friend of myself and wife come in, a couple, and the man is bragging as to his business, and how much money he is making.  What was his business?  He had a certificate from the state of California, he was able to collect money/donations and buy bibles and give bibles.  That's not so bad.  But what was he bragging about?  He only had to use 10% of the money he collected for the bibles, the rest was his profit.  He is preying the same thing, people are preying on those who are not as strong or not as bright, and this was our closest friends.  And I ordered him out of my home; I mean I couldn't accept that man and he never came into my home again.  Because anyone that would treat someone like that, and feel so proud of what he is able to do, and its all part of the same thing if you looked at the underlying thing.  So, everyone should look at themselves a little more carefully and ask what does it do to me if I'm bad to someone else.  I mean someone who is very religious could say a really bad consequence if I'm bad to other people, but other than the religious aspect, just think how much life would be if people were just a little bit kinder and tolerant. 

 

JR:  I don't know if you have much recollection of the Japanese American internment during WWII.  Do you have much of a recollection of when that occurred and what happened?

 

SP:  Yes, and again, horrific, but there you can get a sense of justification.  I mean we didn't know who was the bad guy, we were attacked, brutally attacked, and these people are here.  I could see the fear, but the extremity of doing it and such and the families and how they were treated.  It's one thing to protect yourself, and maybe keep people somewhat confined, but not what happened there.  That was atrocious.  I was glad to see there was compensation with these families over the years, so at least we as a nation recognize an in justice to these people, weather it was enough we still recognize and we did something.

 

JR:  For those Japanese families to be able to get, I think it was 20,000$, and a formal apology from the government, there and to be a lot, there was a lot of the Japanese community and others pushing for that and it didn't come until quite a few years later, and without that push from that community.  What do you think about the formal apology and the compensation due to the fact that it had to come from quite a bit of pushing from the community? 

 

SP:  That's kind of an involved question.  I think that we don't do ourselves proud with how we deal with injustice.  I think too often there has to be so much pressure, it would be so much better if those in power could recognize the right thing to do.  It was never a question if it was the right thing to do, it's just that you have to be pushed to the point, politically or whatever, to do the right thing.  Look at Agent Orange, I mean there's so many things in our history where there's been terrible terrible things done to our people (skip in video).  And is 20,000$ adequate for what these people went through?  Not at all.  When you look at it, we have a terrible history of how we treat other people...an emotional subject.

[Laughing]

It's like I would think just adding to that is it really raised a question and I thought, if there was an organization [unclear] that has tremendous power to identify things that are the right thing to do. And would create such a high, high profile that would drive government and people with power to act differently to maybe, just like the IRS. As a... go and get help there. Should be the same with anywhere else when you got terrible injustice and with the Japanese community to be able to go to some, some aspect of government that's not formal, government, but it's power to bring its attention that can get on the floor of the US senate. And confront people "do you think we should not compensate these Japanese Americans? Answer me sir, answer me, mam." I'd love for something like that, the pompous people all of a sudden, put on the carpet.

 

People need to be more involved. They need to stand up for what they believe.

 

JR: Here's a hypothetical situation, If during WWII, obviously every oen knows the Halocaust occurred. But what if we took part in that as well? If we took part in it as well. What do you think would have happened in this country, and what do you think the public response would have been?

 

SP: What do you mean: "If we took part in it?

 

JR: If we had concentration camps as well in which we showed segregation, discrimination against not just Jews, but any minority or any denomination. How do you think that would have gone in our country?

 

SR: I really don't think that it's, I mean anything's possible but it is so highly unlikely  with our system of checks and balances. That this country could ever take a group of people and engage in something horrific against a group of people. Sure we can take bad guys and put them in Guantanamo, torture an justify, needless to save lives. Protect ourselves, and these are really bad guys, they've killed a lot of people, but I don't think it's possible its highly, highly unlikely that anything like that could happen in this country.  I mean, I think that's the beauty of our nation. We do have checks and balances. When you look at this kid in Colorado, he's now pleading insanity and he may get off and you look and say people on death row: this guy kidnapped 3 women and they say he's getting years and years and years years of appeals, appeals, appeals and part of me feels: Kill him! Don't commit suicide, put him on suicide watch. If they're truly bad guys like this, then it's clear. I mean I resent our system of liberty and our system of law and order with how it gets abused. And how it costs society, I mean huge. It's.. can't even imagine how costs society to follow our laws and the liberty and our system rule of law. But then you say, you can justify this is a bad guy. But let's say you give up a little bit of your principles, then do you give up a little bit more when something else comes about? Little bit more, little bit more, little bit more, then all the sudden, you don't recognize yourself anymore. In Germany, Hitler went after gypsies first, no one cared, not one said anything. They went after the Jews, no one cared, no one said anything. They went after another group, and another group and another group and another group. And then they came after me and there was no one left to say anything. I don't know if you remember that. But it's, it was very symbolic that if you allow the first injustice, it becomes a never ending cycle. That can be disastrous. So, if I was to say anything to anyone, here, what you believe is your right, stand up for it at the beginning.

 

JR: Were there any other experiences in which you stood up for what you believed was right and whether it was verbally spoken or it was physically, were there any other experiences other than that bar situation in which you raised your gun?

SP: I had a job in the early 60's so I would've been in my 20's and worked with a company with the man who was the president whose nickname was God. This guy could do nothing wrong. 6'4'', 6'5''. And, the executive officer of this company was a big kind of semi-circle, executive offices in the back, secretarial desks, in front. And I walked into the room, In this big open area and I see this president, tall, and secretary, short, and she's in tears. And he's yelling at her, middle of... everyone is frozen silent. And open the door, moment and I walked right between up them. I don't remember what I said to him, but I they were... something, whatever it was. And he stopped talking, he looked at me, he glared. He just glared and he went into his office. And I figured "Okay, that's your job." but never heard anything about it. I was pleased because he ended up in jail. Company called "Equity Funding Corporation." They were researched a bit, they did some really, really bad things, after I left, and he and a number of people ended up in jail, good for him. But they, ah, I think I could never walk away if I say that going on. The only time I'd walk away is if it were a terrible physical risk and I know I couldn't do anything if I can get killed. I might not be so ready to jump into that.

 

CP: I think that's about it for our, what we've got for our time. But, we really want to thank you for talking to us, we appreciate it.

SP: And I appreciate the opportunity to join you, thank you so much.

 

JR: Thank you.

 

CP: Thank you.

 

Charlie Craft: Thank you

 

Jack Anderson: Thank- Thank you.

 

SP: Thank you, Jack. Thank you, Charlie. Thank you, Caitlin. And... Thank you, Jordan.

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