SACRAMENTO--This is the 50th anniversary year of arguably the biggest, bitterest brawl ever in California's Capitol. And looking back today, it seems almost inconceivable what the fracas was all about.
It was waged over whether homeowners and landlords should be allowed to continue discriminating because of skin color in the sale and rental of housing.
This was an era of heated scuffles and heroic steps in Sacramento. And Democratic Gov. Pat Brown was boldly on the front line pushing, often at his political peril.
But nothing opened festering societal wounds like Brown's struggle to end racial discrimination in housing. It dominated the Capitol in 1963.
This comes to mind because of Gov. Jerry Brown's recent attempt to rationalize his refusal to provide a court defense for Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage initiative approved by voters in 2008. He equated his inaction with his father's refusal to defend Prop. 14, a 1964 initiative that nullified the act banning housing discrimination.
The comparison is hogwash. But more about that later. We're getting ahead of the story.
In 1963 across America, moods were turning ugly. There was an eruption of civil rights protests seeking to end racial segregation.
Birmingham, Ala., police Chief Bull Connor countered with dogs and firehoses. Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door vowing to block integration. Civil rights leader Medgar Evers was shot to death in Mississippi. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech supporting President Kennedy's new civil rights legislation at the march on Washington. Racists bombed a Birmingham church, killing four little girls.
In Sacramento, Gov. Pat Brown proposed sweeping legislation to end racial discrimination in housing. "No man should be deprived of the right of acquiring a home of his own because of the color of his skin," Brown asserted, a "duh" comment today, but a daring one then.
The bill was carried by Assemblyman Byron Rumford (D-Berkeley), the first black legislator elected from Northern California. It became known as the Rumford Fair Housing Act.
Civil rights demonstrators descended on Sacramento. In a scene unimaginable today because of tighter security, scores of sit-in protesters occupied the Capitol's second-floor rotunda between the two legislative chambers for weeks, sleeping on the tile floor at night and singing "We Shall Overcome" during the day.
At one point — when the Rumford Act was blocked in the Senate — the demonstrators answered by blocking the giant doors to the Senate chamber.
Actors Paul Newman and Marlon Brando visited one day to root on the protesters. The governor — two grandchildren in tow — also showed up once to thank the demonstrators.
The legislation stalled in the Senate, frowned on by its leader, conservative Democrat Hugh Burns of Fresno.
Finally, on the last night of the session, Assembly Speaker Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh — a champion of civil rights — threatened to kill all Senate bills pending in his house unless Burns freed Rumford's measure. A compromise version passed literally at the 11th hour, 22-13, then breezed through the Assembly, 63 to 9.
But first Unruh, a Texas sharecropper's son who understood white racism, rose during the floor debate and cautioned his Democratic colleagues about the political dangers of getting too far ahead of the people.
It didn't take long for Unruh to be proved correct. Soon after Brown signed the bill, the California Real Estate Assn. launched a repeal effort that became Prop. 14.
Seldom subtle, Brown denounced the group and its allies as "shock troops of bigotry" and equated them with Nazis.
Voters approved Prop. 14 by nearly 2 to 1. Ultimately, it was declared unconstitutional by both the state and U.S. supreme courts. But Brown's strong opposition to the initiative helped engineer his 1966 landslide defeat by Ronald Reagan, who railed against the Rumford Act. Rumford also was beaten.
"At that time" Brown told reporters, referring to his anti-14 stumping, "I didn't intend to run for a third term. If I had, I might have been more politic about it."
Doubt it. Pat Brown wasn't one to hold back or be politic.
Fast-forward to the initiative banning gay marriage.
Jerry Brown — then attorney general — didn't utter a peep about Prop. 8 while it was being considered by voters. Only after they narrowly passed it did Brown announce that he wouldn't defend the initiative in court. He contended it extinguished "fundamental constitutional rights" and noted that his father took the same stance in refusing to defend Prop. 14.
Well, of course Pat Brown didn't defend Prop. 14. It would have been blatantly hypocritical. He had aggressively fought the measure because it nullified his housing legislation. Jerry Brown, however, had no such history with Prop. 8 or same-sex marriage.
But even if Brown did think Prop. 8 was poor public policy — as I did — he owed its 7 million supporters their day in court. As attorney general and later governor, Brown could — and should — have authorized an independent counsel to officially represent the electorate. Same with former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and current Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, who also left the voters stranded.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Prop. 8's legal team didn't have "standing" because it wasn't representing the state and couldn't prove a "tangible harm" if same-sex couples were allowed to marry. So the justices left in place a lower court ruling that Prop. 8 was unconstitutional.
A half century ago, there was no question of standing. Realtors apparently could show harm from the Rumford Act. Don't ask me how.
Many things have improved since then, including the outlawing of racial discrimination. But the voters' access to the judicial system is worse off.