Chapter 8: World War II and the Emerging Civil Rights Struggle

2. What was the Sleepy Lagoon Case and how did the Zoot Suit Riots effect San Diego?

On August 2, 1942, José Díaz was found dead near a gravel-pit in East Los Angeles, a   tragedy that would have far-reaching consequences.   In Los Angeles, following the murder the police ordered a dragnet and arrested three hundred young Chicanos.   Following days of sensational newspapers articles labeling all Mexican American youths as gangsters and "Pachucos", there was an indictment of twenty-three youth for murder.   Eventually twelve young Chicanos were convicted of murder and five for assault.  The Sleepy Lagoon defendants were convicted on January 13, 1943, making it "the largest mass-murder trial even conducted in Los Angeles.  The trial took place in an atmosphere of intense prejudice, before a biased judge, and with a stubborn and courageous but inadequate defense." Newspaper, public and judicial bias as well as police prejudice and blatant mistreatment molded the jury verdicts.

As wartime stress mounted, tough police action against Chicano youth gangs throughout Southern California  was reported in newspapers.   During that year, UCAPAWA’s Southern California official Luisa Moreno, Warehouseman's Union Bert Corona, California State Department Immigration and Housing's attorney Carey McWilliams, and others formed the Sleepy Lagoon Committee to rescue the convicted men.   Moreno stressed that the grand-jury testimony, based on racially justified assumptions against the Chicano juveniles, created unavoidable conflicts.  As she explained, "The Sleepy Lagoon Case is a reflection of the general reactionary drive against organized labor and minority problems.  This case now sows all sorts of division among the various racial, national, and religious groups among the workers."                                         

Moreno sensed the war uneasiness in Southern California, primarily in San Diego.  Housing was in short supply.  Rations became a nuisance.  Transportation was a problem.  In San Diego racial conflicts in the U.S.  navy and in San Diego became intense.  People searched for scapegoats.  The war triggered anxiety, ambiguity, and frustration.  Several ships were shelled and torpedoed along the Southern California coast.   Most people in 1943 felt the United States was losing the war.   Moreno’s prophecy turned into a reality in Los Angeles.  Known as "Pachucos", eccentric Chicanos, Negroes, Filipinos, and even White youngsters in peg-bottom, long pants and long coats were prime targets.   In Los Angeles, Chicanos were the majority who wore Zoot Suits.  Their dark skin, accent and mannerisms were enough to set them apart from the average "Angeleno"

In early June 1943, about two hundred sailors took the law into their own hands.  Coming from the Navy Armory in Chávez Ravine into the center of downtown Los Angeles, they formed a brigade of twenty taxicabs.  Several young Chicano zoot-suitors were spotted.  They were badly beaten and left bleeding on the pavements for the ambulance to pick up. Later one of the sailors who led the expedition made a bland statement: "We're out to do what the police have failed to do….  [W] e’re going to clean up this situation…."                                                 

Sensational newspaper stories flourished for several days on the front pages.   "The worse came from the Hearst Press, which in Los Angeles was represented by the L.A.  Herald and the L.A.  Examiner." As Luisa Moreno pointed out, "These papers assaulted Mexican "pachucos" and zoot suiters.  They insinuated that Mexicans were the cause of all the crime and delinquency in California."  Mobs grew larger.  "Squads of servicemen, arm linked, paraded through downtown Los Angeles four abreast, stopped anyone wearing zoot-suits or suffer the consequences."  They were encouraged by police indifference.  "Aside from a few half-hearted admonitions, the police made no effort whatever to interfere with these hoards of disorder."    

During one evening, zoot-suitors were dragged out of downtown motion picture theaters.  Their fancy suits were torn from their bodies.  They were beaten and chased through the streets.  The Sleepy Lagoon case of the previous year and the excitement it had caused had, of course, created further anxiety. An emergency meeting of several hundred citizens was called.    Luisa Moreno, Burt Corona, and other Mexican-American community leaders sprang into action.  "They mobilized a defense committee on behalf of the youngsters who were being arrested and detained."      

According to Alice McGraff, one of the women working on the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, sailors from San Diego were among the instigators in the violence in Los Angeles.   McGraff stated that bus loads of servicemen from San Diego convoyed up to Los Angeles to participate in the riot against the Pachucos. Stories spread that Blacks, Chicanos and unpatriotic Whites abused military personal.   In retaliation several taverns and other favorite spots were vandalized.   As one report stated, "Damage done on the Fifth Street Landing in the way of malicious mischief possibly by enlisted men of USS Kilty."  Tensions prevailed.  Places like La Reine Cafe on 2003 Logan St remained "a low class business frequented by civilians and service men of mixed races and by a large number of common unescorted women." The "general air of drunkenness" created fights over attractive prostitutes. Rumors spread about taverns like La Reine Cafe, owned by "a large hard Negress." Most of them were located on Mission Blvd, such as the Beach Club Cafe and the Casino Club.

The San Diego County Council, consisting of veterans of foreign wars, concluded its investigation "that service men in the uniform of our navy, were being beaten, robbed, drugged, and subjected to other such acts, common to places of low repute."  

On June 10, 1943 San Diego Union reported that groups of servicemen, ranging in size from a dozen to several hundred, roamed San Diego's downtown streets south of Broadway.  They searched for "zoot-suited hoodlums reported to be infiltrating into San Diego from Los Angeles." About 100 sailors and marines stormed downtown San Diego on G Street below First Avenue to chase several youths wearing "the outlandish zoot-suit garb.  The youths made their getaway in the darkness." About 300 other servicemen gathered at Third Avenue and East Street.  They were quickly dispersed by city and military police before any zoot-suiters were discovered. 

San Diego's police were ordered to search suspicious individuals who "appeared to be members of a Pachuco gang.  Those found to be carrying the usual Pachuco weapons-knives, chains and clubs-will be booked in the city jail on charges of carrying deadly weapons, police reported."

Charles C.  Dail, a San Diego city councilman, was concerned about the violence and informed Rear Admiral David Bagley, commandant of the Eleventh Naval District in San Diego that the action taken by the sailors and marines against the so-called "zoot suit" was actually aimed at civilians in general.  "There has been numerous instances in San Diego where members of the military forces have insulted and vilified civilians on public streets..."   Admiral Bagley at first ignored Dail’s complaint; he then tried to discredit him.  Later he denied the indictments leveled by Dail, who was supported by W.J.  Decker, Secretary of the San Diego Industrial Union Council.  The navy kept a lid on the San Diego disturbances.

Meanwhile ugly racial incidents continued to flourish.   There were military reports from El Centro that sailors were "malicious assaulted by Mexican police..."  The Teddy Orias Cafe, 522 6th Avenue, refused to serve Blacks, and tensions escalated.    A frustrated Moreno wanted an investigation of racial issues that marred San Diego and the naval base.  As she explained, "Without a stable political and social environment, nothing can be done.  Political powers rests to those who can sustain growth and deliver prosperity.  Then they can inspire loyalty and cooperation from the people."