It was the hot, fraught summer of 1963. Every weekend 18-year-old college students Bobbie and Renee Hodges would trek over to the boiling, treeless Torrance housing tract of Southwood Riviera Royale, developed by Don Wilson Builders. With their teased hair and stylish summer shift dresses they looked like the quintessential early ’60s All-American girls. But this All-American neighborhood was closed to them, for the simple fact that they were black.
To fight this injustice, they sat-in and picketed in front of the planned community’s sales office at 23448 Evalyn Avenue. The twins were “dedicated, dynamic and full of spirit,” according to the Los Angeles Sentinel, and by August they had been arrested three times for their efforts. But Bobbie explained to the newspaper that their sacrifices were well worth it. “Our goal is not to get one home, but to set a precedent of selling homes to Negroes in white tracts. Wilson’s just happens to be a target area. We want a Negro to be able to buy here because he can pay for a house. In demonstration, we point out discrimination to people.”
Another frequent picketer, a UCLA medical student named James Gordon, explained why he joined scores of other protesters at Southwood Riviera Royale. “Look, I’m here because I am a Negro American and I am tired of discrimination against the Negro race,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “If this country goes to war, I will fight, and I will take the chance of dying. But I’ll be fighting for democracy—not discrimination.”
These were just two of the voices of the thousands of activists who protested at Southwood Riviera Royale, as well as Wilson’s Dominguez Hills and Centerview tracts. For 13 months during the height of the Civil Rights movement, these middle class housing developments became the epicenter of the fight for equal rights in the Southland.
This turn of events was probably not what Don Wilson Sr. expected when he founded Don Wilson Builders in 1955. According to the company’s website, in its first year it was already the fourth largest home builder in the United States. Riding the postwar building boom in Southern California, Wilson built single family homes in new suburbs that sprang to life during the cookie-cutter 1950s. According to South Bay historian and The Daily Breeze journalist Sam Gnerre, by the early 1960s, Don Wilson Builders had developed 50 communities of more than 50,000 homes in California. The company did not respond to interview requests.
In 1960, Wilson turned his attention to the idyllic coastal bedroom community of Torrance, in southwestern Los Angeles County. According to census data, Torrance had grown astronomically in the past decade, from a population of 22,241 in 1950 to 100,991 in 1960. Catering to folks working in cutting-edge technologies like the aerospace industry, it was a mecca for young, middle class families who were almost exclusively white (it is today a majority minority city).
The first phase of the Southwood Riviera Royale tract officially opened on October 30, 1960. Heavily advertised in local papers, the neighborhood boasted brand new three- and four-bedroom homes, with patios, yards, and mod-cons galore. Priced upward from around $26,000, home buyers could choose from more than two dozen exteriors, in styles including provincial, birdhouse ranch, and Hawaiian modern. There were lots with alleys for boat storage, and ads made sure folks knew they would be near Sears, the high school, and the brand-new Kings Boat Marina.
Sales were brisk, and in early 1962 Wilson opened a new phase of Southwood Riviera Royale, featuring new model homes and the sales office on Evalyn Avenue.
But problems were already brewing at Dominguez Hills, another middle-class Wilson development in the city of Gardena. People of color who had gone to tour houses had begun to report on discriminatory and rude practices of sales agents there and at other Wilson properties. According to the Los Angeles Sentinel, on July 28, 1962, the Congress of Racial Equality, a nationwide civil rights organization, held its first small protest at the Dominguez Hills tract.
Founded in 1942 at the University of Chicago, CORE had long participated in and organized protests, pickets, and freedom rides throughout the Northeast and South. During the early 1960s, its members were involved in many integration efforts throughout Southern California and played a prominent role in the struggle for civil rights in the region.
According to CORE, Wilson’s tracts in Gardena, Torrance, and Compton were in clear violation of California’s landmark Unruh Civil Rights Act. Passed in 1959, it promised all Californians “full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges or services in all business establishments,” including housing and public accommodations. The act was passed partly to right wrongs not addressed in the landmark 1948 Supreme Court decision outlawing restrictive covenants, which had been used to keep people of color out of many LA neighborhoods.
Matters were made worse when Wilson opened his new Centerview tract at Avalon and Artesia boulevards, touting it as an “experimental interracial tract” where “anyone could buy.” CORE and other civic organizations claimed the tract was in fact for people of color only, with prices jacked up $2,000 more than comparable houses in Dominguez Hills and Southwood.
In early 1963, in addition to small pickets and marches, potential homeowners, aided by CORE, began to file multiple complaints about discrimination at Dominguez Hills and Southwood. According to the Los Angeles Sentinel:
Complaints sent to the attorney general report that salesmen at Dominguez Hills either flee from Negro customers, locking themselves in the sales office to avoid showing houses, or rudely directed Negroes to go to Centerview, which they openly refer to as “a tract for you people.”
According to the Gnerre, on March 11, 1963, the California Attorney General’s office sued Wilson, claiming he had violated the Unrah Act by turning away six black buyers at Dominguez Hills in September 1962.
CORE did not wait for the suit to wind its way through the courts. Protests slowly mounted throughout the spring of 1963, with activists focusing increasingly on the sales office at Southwood Riviera Royale. The first arrests at Southwood occurred on June 16, 1963. According to the Los Angeles Sentinel, on that day, CORE mounted a 24-hour sit-in at the sales office on Evalyn Avenue. After a full day of action, Wilson arrived with Torrance police and made a citizen’s arrest of 16 protesters crowding the office.
One of those arrested, Arthur Brooks, a freedom rider who had recently been jailed in Mississippi, was stepped on by a Southwood salesman during the fracas. In all, the Los Angeles Times reported that 12 white folks and four people of color were arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for entering a property without the consent of the owner.
Even under the threat of arrest, the protesters were undeterred. Every weekend, crowds of protesters and spectators would descend on Evalyn Avenue in once quite Southwood Riviera Royale. The picket lines and sit-ins attracted clergy members, union members, college students, and young women like Regina Menken, who in late June was dragged to the paddy wagon by police officers along with nine other women.
Residents of Southwood Riviera Royale were increasingly irate. On June 25, 100 out of roughly 600 Southwood residents crowded into a meeting of the Torrance City Council to complain about the protesters who descended on their neighborhood every weekend. At the meeting, Mayor Albert Isen responded to calls for a race relations committee. “I said that if Torrance has any Negroes it has so few that I don’t know whom I could appoint. I don’t know how I could appoint an interracial committee,” Isen said, according to The Daily Breeze.
As Historic Torrance: A Pictorial History of Torrance, California notes, he made things even worse when he was asked, “Do you really have a colored problem in Torrance?”
“No,” he said. “Because we don’t have any colored people!”
CORE claimed all protests would stop if Wilson agreed to certain demands. According to the New York Times, they included the following:
[That] Mr. Wilson sell to a Negro in his Southwood Riviera Royale tract; that he hire a Negro salesman; advertise his developments in Negro newspapers; that he publicly affirm a nondiscriminatory policy, and that he drop charges against previously arrested CORE members.
Wilson failed to meet these demands. On June 29, CORE, the NAACP, and the United Civil Rights Committee launched their biggest protest yet. A motorcade of 250 cars, headed by local NAACP president Dr. Christopher Taylor, drove from Wrigley Field on East 42nd Place in South Los Angeles through Centerview and Dominguez Hills before making its way to Southwood.
More than 700 marchers, counter marchers, and spectators descended on Southwood. Throughout the afternoon the picket grew, as protesters sang “We Shall Overcome” and held signs with such slogans as “Negroes Are Refused Here” and “Segregation Must Go.” Counter-marchers—including a child in a KKK-style hood—taunted protestors. Members of the American Nazi Party were also present, holding a banner reading “White Men Unite.”
The protesters were also met with signs from frustrated Southwood homeowners reading “Without property rights there are no human rights” and “We have civil rights too.” Residents complained to the Los Angeles Times that neighborhood children had started playing “picket” with discarded signs. “It’s disturbing our children, upsetting our lives and changing our way of thinking about Negroes,” one woman said.
Theories that the protesters were paid or communist stooges ran rampant through Torrance. One homeowner said that his lawn had so many footprints that it looked “like the front of Grauman’s Chinese theater.”
As the cause became national news, more and more volunteers signed up to picket and sit-in at Southwood. All CORE members were trained in non-violent philosophies and practices at CORE headquarters at 115 Venice Avenue. However, they were often unprepared for how tedious and exhausting sit-ins and picketing could be. Protesters had to park at the neighborhood’s entrance a half mile away, and to keep walking at all times while on the picket line or face arrest.
“It’s monotonous, hot, tiring work to spend hours every Saturday or Sunday trudging up and down a sidewalk under the eyes of the police and the disdainful glare of homeowners. Especially when you could be swimming or at home. But we’ll keep this up till doomsday because we know we are right,” one demonstrator told the Los Angeles Times.
It could also be violent. According to the Sentinel, two college students participating in a sit-in were chased through an alley by a man in a white Cadillac, and a CORE photographer was thrown to the pavement by a Southwood resident.
On July 12, it seemed a truce had been reached. It was announced black lawyer Odis B. Jackson and his wife, a teacher, put a $500 down-payment on one of the 20 homes still for sale in Southwood. Jackson called his meeting with Wilson “quite cordial.” At a press conference, Wilson agreed to advertise Centerview in white newspapers, bring a black salesman to Southwood, and participate in “no discriminatory advertising of any kind.” In return, CORE agreed to massively scale back activities, continuing only a token picket line until Jackson moved in.
Southwood residents were ambivalent about the Jackson family moving in. “We came to this tract for a reason that had nothing to do with how many white people or how many Negroes there were,” one woman told the New York Times. “Nothing’s going to frighten us into moving.”
The truce did not last long. Two weeks later, Wilson claimed Jackson’s $500 check bounced, while CORE countered that he had cashed it before the agreed upon time. In protest, CORE planned another massive demonstration on July 27, which included movie star Marlon Brando and actor Pernell Roberts.
Brando walked at the front of a line of roughly 150 demonstrators, while onlookers cheered and racists carried offensive signs, including one that read “Brando Is a Stooge for Communist Race Mixture.” Forty-seven protesters were arrested for sitting-in at the Southwood sales office, as the press documented Brando’s every move.
As reporters shouted questions to Brando, his attempts to stop and talk to them were repeatedly rebuffed by a police officer, who said, “You’ll have to keep moving or you will be arrested. You are blocking the sidewalk.” Asked if he felt bad for the Southwood residents whose yards had been damaged, Brando retorted: “I’m sure some of the flowers are being stepped on today. But so are some people’s civil rights.”
A cycle of protests and arrests continued throughout July and early August, while new laws and restraining orders enacted by the Torrance City Council imposed a curfew and limits on protesting. During a large protest the first weekend of August, 25 people were arrested, according to the Los Angeles Times.
That weekend also marked the first time a Southwood resident joined the picket, when homemaker Sue Beatty walked across her lawn to join the protest. “I am sympathetic,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “I believe they are right.”
Torrance authorities increasingly enforced the city’s new anti-picketing laws in the form of restraining orders, making the protests increasingly difficult. On August 29, the Los Angeles Sentinel announced an agreement between CORE and the city of Torrance. Charges against 203 CORE demonstrators were dropped, and CORE agreed to a token picket one day a week. It reserved the right to increase demonstrations if courts found Wilson had discriminated against potential homeowners.
The months-long struggle at Southwood and the other neighborhoods had taken its toll on protesters and residents. According to CORE, 3,500 people had donated 11,700 hours to the protests. CORE also assessed that 249 arrests had been made, 63,600 leaflets had been distributed, and bail had cost upwards of $100,000.
“After many weeks of feverish activity, last weekend was gratefully quiet due to the restraining order in Torrance halting sit-ins and therefore arrests,” Barbara Dimmick wrote in the Los Angeles Sentinel. “Herb Mann, our active office manager, even had time to watch television instead of going to jail as usual!”
The respite was brief. LA’S CORE branch turned its attention to other civil rights drives, including “Operation Window Shop,” which encouraged people of color to tour homes for sale throughout the county. “It’s just good for white people to get used to seeing Negroes looking at houses in their neighborhoods,” a CORE member explained to the New York Times. It also continued calling for boycotts of lending institutions that made loans to racist builders, including the Home Savings and Loan.
And the saga was not yet over at Southwood Riviera Royale. On December 5, 1963, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued Don Wilson Builders on behalf of Lloyd Ransom, a black chemist at Hughes Aircraft. It was charged that his application for a home had been denied “strictly because of racial bias.” Charges were later dropped when Ransom and his wife integrated the neighborhood when a home was purchased for them through a white intermediary.
After the protesters had moved on, Southwood Riviera Royale became the quiet, sunny middle-class neighborhood it was intended to be. Today, it is still a lovely midcentury neighborhood, many of the homes looking much like they did in the 1960s. Don Wilson Builders is still in business, and is now run by the third generation of the Wilson family.
On peaceful Evalyn Avenue, it seems that traces of all that happened that long ago summer have been erased, but the problems and questions the demonstrations raised are still valid across LA today. “What is more important—property rights or human rights?” protester Thelma Hart once asked the Los Angeles Times. “I feel our cause is justified.”