Times Past

Surviving the turbulent ‘60s as ‘brothas’

A recent photo of friends Phil Gardiner, Joe Lewis, Joe Ramey, Tony Hilliard and Kevin Lowe (left to right).
A recent photo of friends Phil Gardiner, Joe Lewis, Joe Ramey, Tony Hilliard and Kevin Lowe (left to right). Courtesy photo

In 1966, Liz’s student, Joe Lewis, graduated from St. Elizabeth High in Oakland.

After a year at UC Berkeley, Joe joined the Air Force and married Liz. When he returned to the East Bay in 1973, Oakland and its Black Panther Movement were part of America’s conversation on race.

In 2010, Rita Williams-Garcia’s “One Crazy Summer,” a funny, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful novel won four major awards including the Scott O’Dell Award and a Newbery Honor. Set in Oakland during the turbulent summer of 1968, three young sisters are sent to live with their mentally ill mother who had abandoned them.

“If you girls want breakfast, go on down to the People’s Center . . . Next to the library on Adeline. Just keep walking till you see kids and old people lined up . . . Y’all can run around after breakfast or stay for the program at the Center. It don’t make me no difference.”

Black Panthers ran the Center. The sisters got nutritious meals, but didn’t like the “political education” that came with it. Only later did they notice the laughter, hugs, singing, and art and appreciate the support system for the most vulnerable. This was not how Liz and I had seen the Black Panthers at that time.

Joe Lewis sent us an important film documentary, “The Brothas,” that he and four African American friends of 50-plus years made in 2011 about their lives.

In 1965-66 there were few black students at St. Elizabeth’s, but some white students openly spouted racist ideas. We were amazed at Joe’s equanimity. Getting to know Joe’s sacrificing, inspiring parents and watching “The Brothas,” we understand part of the reason for Joe’s resilience.

By junior high, the “Brothas” had coalesced in a neighborhood straddling South Berkeley and North Oakland. Each was the only boy in his family. They came from stable families in which both parents worked. One was from a “big” family of three kids, and two, the “Little Kings,” were the only children born to older parents.

Kevin Lowe is the youngest of the “Brothas.” His interracial parents had to go to Washington state to get married just months before the California Supreme Court overturned the state’s anti-miscegenation law in 1948.

Joe Ramey recalls a teacher telling him that he couldn’t be an angel in the Christmas pageant because “there aren’t any black angels.”

Ramey’s parents bought a home in an Italian neighborhood in the late 1950s. The seller claimed he didn’t realize he’d sold to a black family. When the Rameys moved in, “Half the Oakland police were in our front yard,” it seemed to Joe. The police wanted to take Mr. Ramey “downtown.”

“My 130 lb. dad refused, saying, ‘If you take me down, you’ll have to do it by force. But let me tell you one thing. You’d better know what you are doing.’”

The police finally left.

Incidents like that produced a healthy questioning of authority in Joe. However, as he told Black Panther Bobby Seale during the People’s Park demonstrations in Berkeley, “I can’t always be there.” But later, he said in “The Brothas,” as a computer operations manager, “I do my ‘revolution’ individually, hiring minorities.”

Joe Ramey’s family included Papa, his grandfather who always wore a three-piece suit. Joe wondered if he wore it to sleep.

Tony Hilliard was the only one whose parents were college graduates. “We (his dad fought in the Pacific) traveled a lot, to Canada, the South.” He was “three or four and wanted some water when my older sister pulled me away from a White Only water fountain.”

“Emmett Till,” Tony says, “had no idea what life in the South was like.” Till was 14 in 1955 when he left his home in Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi. He was lynched there after being accused of whistling at a white woman.

Phillip S. Gardiner has a Ph.D. in Public Health from UC Berkeley. Like Kevin, Joe Ramey and Tony, he graduated from Oakland’s Tech High when it was largely white.

The “Brothas” never saw themselves as disadvantaged. They played baseball and “plastic bag ball” with broomsticks, played pool and went to movies. They didn’t skip school. “We truly had homes away from home, with the other parents treating us like sons,” Phillip Gardiner said.

The “Brothas” love to debate, exchanging different sides. Phil demonstrated against apartheid and opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam and Iraq. Joe Lewis and Tony joined the Air Force.

All are grateful they were raised in homes that emphasized the Golden Rule. For years Joe Lewis volunteered as a Court Appointed Child Advocate. “We are each other’s brothers, the Brothas are my backstop,” says Phil. They all agree.

At her 80th birthday, Kevin’s mother said, “These are the real boys from the ‘hood!”

***

“The Brothas” tells the story of how five young men survived a turbulent era.

America’s youth continue to need the support that you can offer through San Luis Obispo’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. High School Scholarship Fund Barbecue at the Elks Lodge in San Luis Obispo. Tickets cost $10. You can “take-out” or “dine in.” The barbecue takes place on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 7. Please save the date. The barbecue supports more than a dozen scholarships that are color blind and based on financial need.

Times Past is special to The Tribune. Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association. Liz Krieger is a retired children’s librarian for the San Luis Obispo County Library.

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