Conference: “The Sleepy Lagoon Case, Constitutional Rights, and the Struggle for Democracy”

Event Date: 
Friday, May 20, 2005 - 12:00pm to Saturday, May 21, 2005 - 7:00pm
Event Location: 
CSRC Library and other locations
UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center, the Charles E. Young Library Department of Special Collections and the Fowler Museum will hold a conference to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the release of the Sleepy Lagoon defendants and to reflect upon the similarities of the case to contemporary events.
The conference, titled “The Sleepy Lagoon Case, Constitutional Rights and the Struggle for Democracy,” will take place Friday, May 20, in the Chicano Studies Research Center, Room 144, Haines Hall, 375 Portola Plaza, and at the Fowler Museum Lenart Auditorium, 308 Charles E. Young Dr. North; and Saturday, May 21, at the Lenart Auditorium.
Alice Greenfield McGrath, executive secretary of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, and Jaime Gonzalez Monroy, a union organizer and a member of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee in the 1940s, will take part in the conference. Other panelists including leading scholars who have studied the history of the Sleepy Lagoon case and those involved with the infamous trial.
The conference includes panel discussions and a screening of the movie “Zoot Suit,” which is based on the trial and efforts to free the defendants. The screening takes place at 5:30 p.m., Friday, in Lenart Auditorium, and will be followed by a discussion with Greenfield McGrath and Kinan Valdez, director with El Teatro Campesino.
On Saturday, conference highlights include a panel featuring Greenfield McGrath, Gonzalez Monroy and Peter Richardson, author of “American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams.” Panelists will discuss personal and historical recollections of the Sleepy Lagoon case. The panel will take place from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in Lenart Auditorium.
The Sleepy Lagoon trial took place in 1942, just months after Japanese Americans were detained and put into internment camps. After a fight at a party in southeast Los Angeles near a reservoir nicknamed “Sleepy Lagoon,” José Diaz, a young Mexican national, was found dead. Local media outlets, most notably the Hearst-owned Herald-Express and the Los Angeles Times, blamed Diaz’s death on a “crime wave” led by Mexican American “zoot-suiters” or “pachucos.”
More than 600 youths, most of them Mexican American, were arrested after Diaz’s death. Many were detained for the clothes that they wore or their general appearance. Some claimed that such “racial profiling” was necessary for national security because they believed Mexican American “zoot-suiters” had established pro-fascist groups in the United States.
Twenty-two youths were subjected to a mass trial and judged by an all-white jury. During the trial, the defendants were not allowed to speak or confer with counsel. The defendants also were not allowed to change their clothes. Judge Charles G. Fricke repeatedly overruled defense attorney objections and personally ridiculed them. Blatantly racist testimony also played a key role in the trial’s outcome.
Three were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, nine were convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to five-to-life, five were convicted of assault and released for time served, and five were found not guilty and released.
“Charles G. Fricke. Judge Fricke was consistently rude and sarcastic to the defense attorneys and unfailingly courteous and helpful to the prosecution,” McGrath Greenfield said. “Throughout the trial, the all-white jury had access to inflammatory stories in newspapers and magazines.”
The well-known writer, lawyer and civil rights activist Carey McWilliams noted the links between World War II, the Japanese American internment and the anti-Mexican backlash. He wrote, “In Los Angeles, where fantasy is a way of life, it was a foregone conclusion that Mexicans would be substituted as the major scapegoat once the Japanese were removed.”
Defense attorneys, including Ben Margolis and Selma Bachelis, immediately appealed the decision on various grounds, most notably that the defendants were not allowed to confer or speak with counsel. The appeal process lasted nearly two years. During the trial, labor activist La Rue McCormick established an ad-hoc committee to publicize the events surrounding the case.
After the defendants were sentenced, the organization was reorganized and became known as the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee with McWilliams as its chair. The committee was a multiracial, local, grass roots coalition that included Mexican-Americans, whites and blacks. Defendant family members, Hollywood celebrities, labor officials and radical political activists, among others, made up the committee. The left, labor, Jewish, Mexican and African American press covered the trial, the appeal, and the committee’s activities.
As World War II was winding down, Judge Clement Nye dismissed the charges, citing “insufficient evidence” against the Sleepy Lagoon defendants on Oct. 23, 1944.
“With the ‘war on terrorism’ currently unfolding, one can see clear parallels between what happened 61 years ago and what is happening now,” said Carlos Haro, assistant director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. “Middle Easterners, Sikhs, Muslim immigrants and other ‘suspect groups’ have been targeted and harassed. How these events unfold is an open question; however, one can only hope that social movements like the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee will continue to organize to stem hatred and fear.”
The Charles E. Young Library Department of Special Collections has acquired the papers of Greenfield McGrath, McWilliams and the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee.
This event is available on iTunes.

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