Martin Luther King, Jr’s Connections to San Diego Citizen Journalism

by on January 16, 2023 · 0 comments

in Civil Rights, History, Media, Ocean Beach, San Diego

Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested and jailed during anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, AL. During his detention he wrote the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” declaring the moral duty of individuals to disobey unjust laws.

In U2’s Pride (In the Name of Love) Bono sings:

Early morning, April four
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride

These lines are about the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4th, 1968 – 50 years ago. King was in Memphis where he had gone to provide support and encouragement to 1300 African-American sanitation workers who had walked off their jobs in that city.

The day before he was assassinated, King gave his final speech, known as ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech. In an emotional peak, King finished the speech with these words:

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

I’m not fearing any man.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Here’s the full text.

Martin Luther King, Jr’s Connections to San Diego Citizen Journalism

Many San Diegans don’t know the connections between citizen journalism in San Diego and King’s death. But they exist – even though King never knew about them.

Five days after King’s death – as cities around the country exploded in angry responses – hundreds of students and some faculty at UC San Diego met in a protest meeting in one of the large auditoriums on campus. (The meeting was this reporter’s very first political meeting.) The main focus was ‘how do we respond? what should we do?’

After hours of debate, it was decided to form various committees or collectives to take on such tasks as educating the campus and community about racism, about looking into what could be done to increase the numbers of African-American students and faculty and other minorities on campus.

One group of students and grad students wanted to do more. They wanted to take on the racist San Diego establishment – and decided as a group – they called themselves a “collective” – to move off campus and publish a newspaper. And that’s what they did. A dozen or so people found a large 3-story house in Banker’s Hill, moved in and began publishing what was called an underground newspaper – “The San Diego Free Press” – . Many of its members were philosophy students of Herbert Marcuse, the icon of the New Left.

Founders of the Free Press included Lowell Bergman, later an investigative reporter for 60 Minutes. Members of the staff commune, called The People’s Commune, … lived communally in a 3-story brick house in Hillcrest, and also had a dilapidated rural retreat in Ramona, where marijuana was sometimes grown. Wikipedia

Some individuals of the collective took on the role of distribution and would hawk the newspaper at UCSD and other college campuses, as well as a number of neighborhoods. After about a year of publishing, the paper’s name was changed to The San Diego Street Journal.

The paper showered conservative San Diego with an in-your-face type of citizen journalism. It catered to students, progressives, minorities, young people and the emerging hippie counter-culture. As the paper took on more and more of the local establishment, it attracted a swath of right-wing extremists and FBI and police harassment. During one period, members and supporters of the collective had to stand armed guard in the group’s house to prevent any snipers or fire bombs, as they had been threatened with those.

Both the Free Press and its successor the Street Journal were subjected to arrests by local police, and harassment and spying by the FBI. Break-ins, vandalism, and the fire-bombing of a car owned by the commune were allegedly carried out by paramilitary vigilantes calling themselves the Secret Army Organization (SAO).

Police and members of the military Shore Patrol entered the commune and the paper’s offices without a warrant, in search of deserters. Street vendors were arrested and the paper’s editorial offices were broken into and robbed; in a break-in on Christmas Day 1969, a $4000 typesetting machine was thoroughly wrecked. … Several weeks later a fund-raising cocktail party to raise funds for the Street Journal was raided by police, who arrested [one of the editors] for selling alcohol without a license. Wikipedia

The paper also ended up taking on particular bigwigs such as San Diego Union publisher James S. Copley, race track owner John Alessio – and tycoon C. Arnoldt Smith – “Mr San Diego”. With their citizen journalistic endeavors, the Street Journal greatly aided in bringing down Smith’s empire.

From a 2011 article by Don Bauder in San Diego Reader:

Half a century ago, C. Arnholt Smith was “Mr. San Diego,” controlling U.S. National Bank and Westgate-California, a conglomerate including a tuna company, hotels, Yellow Cab operations, an airline, and real estate. But the Securities and Exchange Commission said that Smith and his cronies had concocted a scheme to engage in sham transactions to pump up profits of both the bank and Westgate.

Smith and his close colleagues, along with relatives, owned and controlled a slew of assets that would be traded back and forth at inflated prices. The bank would do the financing. … This mare’s nest of deals caused another problem: the bank’s loans to Smith associates vastly exceeded bank regulators’ limits on insider transactions. The United States Comptroller of the Currency said the bank’s muddle of Smith-related transactions was “self-dealing run riot.” …

Westgate went into bankruptcy, and its various entities were sold off. The bank was seized by the federal government in mid-1973. Smith went into custody, albeit briefly.

Inspired by the Street Journal, a bunch of us in Ocean Beach began publishing the original OB People’s Rag, which evolved into a genuine community newspaper for OB by the early, mid-Seventies.

Fast forward a few decades, we began the online OB Rag in late 2007. And after a few years of success, the staff launched the new, online San Diego Free Press, which lasted a good six years. (There has been at least one other earlier rendition of the San Diego Free Press during the early 2000s.)

The circle of San Diego citizen journalism has come around.

50 years ago, the tragedy led to the first underground newspaper for the city. 50 years later, descendants of those first citizen journals are still around –  alive and well – and still taking on the San Diego – and national – establishment.


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