SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) — This week marks the 50th anniversary of a civil rights demonstration where hundreds of protesters were arrested at car dealerships along San Francisco’s Auto Row.
Focused on economic and racial discrimination, protests were held at Mel’s Drive-In in late 1963, the Sheraton Palace Hotel in March of 1964 and then on April 11th that same year, one of the biggest civil rights demonstrations the city had ever seen was held on Van Ness Avenue’s Auto Row.
Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was among the demonstrators.
“At that time, San Francisco still had a serious problem hiring African-Americans in significant positions like auto sales [positions] or even hotels. You would think it would have been just the opposite, but it was not.”
Brown recalled the city had trouble with hiring blacks to bar-tending and wait staff jobs in restaurants at the time.
Former San Francisco NAACP president and talk-show host Ray Talliaferro said those protests began at the Cadillac dealership.
“A lot of the black folk could afford Cadillacs, but they wouldn’t hire anybody black to be upstairs on the main floor as sales people,” he said.
The protests at Cadillac and other car dealerships along the row involved thousands of demonstrators sitting-in at showrooms and blocking a portion of Van Ness Avenue.
Attorney and former San Francisco Supervisor and District Attorney Terence Hallinan was another one of those demonstrators, and he said people of all races participated, including NAACP members, members of the Ad-Hoc Committee to End Discrimination, and students from San Francisco State and UC Berkeley.
“It was such unity,” he said.
Brown, who was a lawyer at the time, strolled into an auto dealer and pretended to shop for a car for one of his clients who would later become a judge.
“We would do that on Saturdays and we’d never see any brothers and we decided that should change,” Brown said.
While he acknowledged this particular technique wasn’t exactly freedom rides or a sit in, it was something he used to move the civil rights agenda. “It served the same purpose.” Although he admitted “getting arrested wasn’t part of my deal.” He claimed he knew he had a future.
More than 200 Auto Row demonstrators were arrested, but the protests lead to the dealerships signing nondiscriminatory hiring pacts.
Brown said San Francisco’s race relations have come a long way with blacks having been elected to political office, but he questions today’s employment trends with regards to race and the number of people of color that live in the city in the first place.