Kevin Cody

Writing Honorable Mention: Education of a civil rights worker

Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page
Weldon-Moonlight Over PV 4 of 4

Photography Honorable Mention: Moonlight over Palos Verdes by Dave Weldon

by Willy Leventhal

Education of a civil rights worker

The 50th Anniversary of my Mira Costa Class of 1964, which will be celebrated this weekend,is also the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I suspect that Mrs. Kiami, my 8th grade teacher at Center Street School in Manhattan Beach for the 1959-60 school year, would be surprised (and pleased) that five years later one of her students would have spent a summer in the South helping to implement the Civil Rights Act. It certainly was not my plan, which was to be on the field with the Dodgers — with whom I worked out three times at second base while at MiCoHi. But boyhood athletic dreams eventually meet up with reality. During that summer of ‘65, a year after the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress and signed by LBJ, racial segregation signs were still present throughout the Deep South, including the five counties where I worked on voter registration as a staff member for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was arrested three times that summer, once with Congressman John Lewis, and shot at twice. While there were many difficult times, the upside was making some great lifelong friendships.  And, there was also fun, in particular, when I integrated a previously all “Negro,” semi-pro baseball team with guys who had played in the minors and Negro Leagues. However, I am getting ahead of the point of this story, which is how my teachers and coaches, fellow students and baseball teammates in Manhattan Beach influenced my decision to answer Dr. King’s call to service after he spoke at UCLA during my freshman year. A class assignment by Mrs. Kiami to take the side of the South in a debate about slavery opened up my interest in American race relations. My mother, a teacher in Redondo, explained to me that I did not have to agree with an argument to debate the merits of the argument. Mrs. Kiami got me interested in actually studying and getting a high grade in the U.S. Constitution test. The two students with the highest grades got to go out for an ice cream treat with her. Alison Monahan was so smart that I knew she would get the highest grade, which she did. I had a crush on her, but was too shy to ask her out on a date. Mrs. Kiami also helped me turn the corner from the 7th grade “animal house” experience I had when I moved that year to Manhattan Beach from Westchester. Our 7th grade teacher had unfortunately been given too many “high energy” grade students, including Fred Featherstone, Kent Wyatt , Ricky Lyman, Chuck Woods and Clark Mallory. I would have had to be mummified not to have laughed at their antics. But, there was more than Mrs. Kiami in those formative teenage years. My French teacher Mr. James McFadden was a WW ll Navy veteran, and related amazing stories of his service. Another positive impact came from the attention I received from Mira Costa baseball coaches John Rhodes and Cliff Warren Even, more important, though, was being shortstop on the Manhattan Beach All Star Pony League Team. Pete Espinosa and I were the only non-WASPs selected for the team, but were treated great by our coaches Jerry Mikesell, John Frodsham, and LAPD detective “Dutch” Van Dyken. Being Jewish was never an issue with my baseball buddies Neville Saner, Jim Tritt, Joey Egerer, Bruce Van Dyken. Nor was it an issue on the area all star team with Redondo standout Gene Cooper, and Aviation’s star, Joey Burton ( both would play baseball at UCLA). Moreover, as a part of that Pony League team we took Gardena to the sectional tournament finals, but were defeated. That was also a lesson in human relations. Behind their star Steve Sogge (later a USC first team All American in baseball, and all Pac 8 quarterback), there were five Japanese players, including Dale Minami, who became a legend as a civil rights attorney. I have no doubt that my formative experiences during my early teen years in Manhattan Beach led to my volunteering to work for Dr. King, trying to help make “freedom for all” a reality in the South. Thank you Mrs. Kiami (and, Alison, Jiffy Johnston, the Watson sisters, and other girls) for being so nice to the new kid in town. B  

comments