World War II Migrations and the Formation of a California Culture

Two groups that were impacted significantly by World War II were African Americans, and Mexican Americans. The circumstances of their migrations were different from each other’s, but the experiences of both influenced the way that migrants, especially youth, in America were viewed by larger society and how their protests served as a way to achieve self-realization and assertion in a society full of racial discrimination and segregation.

Black migrants came to California in the 1940s and 50s in unprecedented numbers seeking greater economic gains through employment in defense industry jobs which were prevalent in the Bay Area, improved educational opportunities for children, and freedom from the racial injustices that they had experienced in the South. As Murch explained, “California’s newcomers vitalized Bay Area political culture and increasingly challenged the leadership of an older generation of residents” (Murch, 4). These newcomers challenged the status quo, enrolled in colleges and universities and used “unconventional tactics to challenge police violence and electoral exclusion” (Murch, 4). Older generations relied on the strength and support they received from Black churches, unions and civil rights organizations. They had fought for and achieved employment in highly paid wartime industries and by the 1960s had been able to send their children to the colleges and universities which opened the doors of race consciousness and the drive to take the struggle to the streets for greater equality. This resulted in the formation of new organizations and the Black Power Movement which was an important part of the larger Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

African American youth sought new methods of expression through music, clothing and the arts. There was an impulse to return to their African roots. As Murch explained, “agitation for Black Studies courses and debates about the ‘relevance’ of education became essential to mobilizing African American youth” (Murch, 8). This questioning and searching became an important method of empowerment and political engagement for African American youth and the clothes they wore, hairstyles they adopted and language they used became ways for them to reclaim their heritage and step out of the shadows of oppression.

The dominant white society saw their attempts to break away from the status quo and beyond the racially defined norms as threatening. When African American youth sought self-realization and assertion through protest and agitation, white America countered this challenge by recasting younger generations of Black youth as delinquents and as a problem to be managed instead of a culture to be celebrated.

In Los Angeles, established Mexican American families had been relegated to barrios, neighborhoods where conservative values could be upheld and preserved. Young Mexican Americans began to see that “there was a different America outside of the neighborhood” that they wanted to be a part of (Zoot Suit Riot). They were drawn to jazz music and clubs in downtown L.A., their language became punctuated with words like “cool” and “hip”, and fashion was borrowed from African Americans, like Cab Calloway, who wore baggy suits and pegged pants, called Zoot Suits (Zoot Suit Riots). These young people defied the norms of segregation venturing out of the barrioswhich resulted in white citizens who felt threatened. Following the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial during the summer of 1943, the Zoot Suit Riots raged through Los Angeles and zoot suiters were targeted by service men. During this time of violence, when police and city officials stood by without intervention, young Mexican American youth banded together and organized their defense against servicemen who had come to “clean up town” from nearby bases and ports (Zoot Suit Riots).

Following the riots, city officials banned the wearing of zoot suits in public. This prohibition of a means of cultural expression was problematic for some Mexican Americans. Hank Leyba, whose conviction in the Sleepy Lagoon murder had been overturned, wore a zoot suit as he was released from prison. Wearing of the zoot suit had been racialized in Los Angeles where it had become synonymous with juvenile delinquency and pachucos(“punks”) (Zoot Suit Riots). Mr. Leyba’s choice to defy the dominant white culture in his moment of redemption was a powerful signal to other Mexican American youth and served as a moment of cultural pride and empowerment.

African American and Mexican American youth broke away from the cultural confines which bound their parents into a tightly segregated system of white verses black or brown. They used music, art, fashion and language as political expression to reclaim their culture and transform it into something that is dynamic. More than just the outer trappings, these methods of resistance transformed the cultural landscape of California, especially in Los Angeles and Oakland.