For more than one hundred years, our community has served as a sanctuary for every race, religion and ethnicity. Riverside County is distinctly American, in that it is a true melting pot. But just like any other community, our history contains instances of exclusion and injustice. However, with the dedication and bravery of activists and a few elected officials, Riverside County became a hot bed of civil rights issues, as we rejected those violations of decency and sided with fairness and equality.
For example, in the early 20th century, there were laws that made life difficult for Asian immigrants. They couldn’t naturalize and they also had impediments to owning property. As a way around the Alien Land Law, Jukichi and Ken Harada purchased a house in Downtown Riverside in the name of their children. As you can imagine, this didn’t make their Caucasian neighbors too happy and they formed a committee to “persuade” Jukichi to sell his home. Jukichi refused and his neighbors filed a suit with the California Attorney General’s Office in the Riverside Superior Court in order to force him to sell.
The case went on for several years until 1918 when Judge Hugh Craig of the Riverside Superior Court upheld the legality of the Alien Land Law, but ruled that American born children of aliens were able to own land. Although the judge reaffirmed the racist and discriminatory law which focused on Asian immigrants, it represented a step forward for their citizen children.
In 1965, a group of farmworkers in Riverside County went on strike and worked with Cesar Chavez in order to receive basic labor rights. The strike lasted nearly five years, but by joining with other labor groups, the farmworkers in our region were able to receive what they were seeking – collective bargaining rights and higher wages.
Perhaps most impressive is that the Inland Empire played an instrumental role in the civil rights movement. In 1965, the very same year we saw a peaceful march in Selma turn in to one of our most tragic moments, the civil rights movement was in full swing. In August, the Watts Riots dominated the national media, as the end result was 32 deaths, 3,000 arrests and more than $40 million in property damage. It was a turning point in the civil rights movement. Little did we know that while the reverberations were still being felt, our community would become the first post-Watts Riots battleground just several weeks later.
In early September of that year, Lowell School, which was a school for African American and Latino students, burned to the ground. While fire officials quickly determined that it was a case of arson, no suspects were ever apprehended. Parents of Lowell students were rightly outraged. But instead of turning to the same methods used in Watts, they organized and presented a petition demanding that Lowell and other minority schools be closed, a move that would have effectively ended segregation in Riverside.
Several weeks after the fire, the Riverside Unified School District considered the matter and voted to become the first school district in the nation to integrate voluntarily.
Our region is rife with instances throughout the decades of people rejecting injustice. Since those days, our population in the Inland Empire has exploded, increasing from 1.5 million residents to 4.3 million residents. Much like our early days, families and businesses came to Riverside County because of the opportunity it presented.
However, the increase in population has lead to new and old challenges. How does our already existing population react to the new residents? Are there sufficient services to provide for such an increase? Will our infrastructure help or hinder our economy? Are there good jobs that allow people to thrive?
I remain convinced that the answer is to ensure that all people, no matter their race, religion, age or ethnicity, are considered during the policy making process. Communities thrive when everyone is included and treated equally. Like the historical instances I wrote about earlier showed, the fight for justice is never quick and it is never easy. We can continue to make history, as it is on our side.
Let’s be vigilant. Let’s be active.