Lomax Family: From L.A. to South of '60s

Melanie Lomax can't forget her first contact with the South.

The first vice president of the Los Angeles branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People was 10 and living in middle-class Los Angeles when her mother packed Melanie and five brothers and sisters into a big, robin's-egg-blue Lincoln.

It was 1961, and Almena Lomax, who had just divorced her husband and closed down the Los Angeles Tribune, a black newspaper the family published, drove toward Tuskegee, Ala., to work in the emerging civil rights movement.

Now 35, Melanie Lomax recently led the NAACP's "fair-share" campaign, which extracted pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars in minority community investments from McDonald's restaurants and the Adolph Coors Co., and announced a similar campaign against six major record companies that has caused some controversy.

Shock of Segregation

She sat on a couch in her hillside Pasadena home and recalled her shock at the segregation her family encountered as it entered Texas on that long-ago trip.

"There were colored restaurants and there were white ones," she said. "There were colored restrooms and there were white ones. And there were water fountains that were labeled the same way. I was just totally astounded."

She was even more surprised when her mother entered the white side of a segregated Texas diner.

"My mother, being the kind of woman she is, addressed the world from this principled perspective . . . ," Lomax recalled. "You know what's right and what isn't right. So she would not let us go to the colored part of this restaurant.

"This was totally ridiculous for a black woman and six children to go without even male protection. And we had, from the standpoint of a minor child, one of the most horrifying experiences in terms of enormous hostility.

"We walked in. They refused to seat us. My mother launched into one of her (speeches). . . . It was very articulate, very strong and direct . . . and she started telling the manager about the wrongness of this, and how outrageous it was, and that she was going to stand on her principles. . . .

"The colored help came out from the kitchen and they cracked the door, not as if we were liberating them, but with the greatest hostility, like what are you Northern Negroes, middle-class people, doing coming down here on this integration trip. You're just going to make things worse.

"The manager insisted we leave. He would not give us a table. The stalemate went on indefinitely. . . . One of these fat old rednecks drove up in a sheriff's car."

The party included Melanie's brother Michael, now 37, chairman of the Fulton County (Ga.) Board of Commissioners and reportedly the most powerful politician in Atlanta behind Mayor Andrew Young.

Also along were Michele, now 40, a writer; Mia, 32, a dancer; Mark, 30, an executive administrative assistant in the Los Angeles municipal court, and Lucius IV, 29, a writer and reporter.

"During this whole thing we began to lobby my mother," Melanie Lomax said. "We just wanted to get something to eat. I mean, I really was not interested in any monumental hassles."

Eventually Almena Lomax and her children left without being served.

Started a Newspaper

After reaching Tuskegee, Almena Lomax started a newspaper that attacked segregated schools and advocated black voting in an area traditionally opposed to it.

She helped plan the freedom rides, and she and her children integrated restaurants and met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy.

And Almena Lomax continued to speak her mind. During secret meetings with the shades drawn at Abernathy's Montgomery, Ala., home, she was kicked out of sessions to plan the freedom rides when she disagreed with the planners' nonviolent tactics.

"I wouldn't ride a bus. Abernathy was disgusted," Almena Lomax remembered. "I said I will not go to jail for asking what is my due. I said I am not a pacifist. Anybody who hits me gets hit back.

"I said what have we been doing for 200 years but taking that crap?

'Winning Converts'

"They wouldn't even let me do typing after a while. . . . That was very painful. . . . (But) I would not be quiet. And I was winning converts."

Almena Lomax, petite and 5 feet, 4 inches tall, took the position that self-defense would prevent further violence. She said that in Montgomery, she watched whites chase early freedom riders and corner them in an alley.

"There was this great big guy--he wasn't really big, but he was fat with a belly flowing over his belt. He was the leader. He was hesitant. Until the freedom riders took a step back. Then it became a mob. I wrote that a mob only becomes a mob when it has a victim."

She also helped a young reporter. Peter Jennings, now anchor for "ABC World News Tonight," had just been hired by the network from Ottawa, Canada, when he arrived in Tuskegee in 1964 to cover the South.

"I was terribly confused about what was going on," he said from his office in New York. "I remember driving into a driveway . . . and suddenly being confronted by Almena, who said something like, 'You look like you're lost. Let me take your hands and lead you.'

"Which she did. Had it not been for Almena I would have had much less of an understanding of the South than I did," Jennings said.

'Indomitable Figure'

"She had an indomitable figure. She struck you (in a physical sense). But there was some combination between body and intellect which was really indomitable. It struck you that this was going to be a very tough person to get around if you so wanted."

Jennings remains friendly with the Lomaxes 25 years later.

Almena Lomax, now in her "mid-60s," remembered her years in the South during a recent interview in her quiet, hillside Canoga Park home.

Sitting in a living room armchair, she said she took her children back to Los Angeles for several months each time she despaired of the education they were getting in Southern schools.

She also recalled that she returned to the South with her children five times between 1961 and 1965.

"I couldn't get it out of my system," she said. "I also felt the struggle was the most important thing we were doing."

Almena Lomax published a short story in Harper's magazine about her experience and, after her last trip to the South, became a copy editor and a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner.

Gardens and Writes

She commuted between Los Angeles and San Francisco for several years before settling in Canoga Park, where she gardens and writes fiction at a typewriter on a large desk in her living room.

About 30 miles away in Pasadena her daughter sat in a similarly large home with a similarly green yard and said she had always had an "ambivalent attitude" toward her mother's trips to the South.

"I understood that there are people in the world who can make the world better, who charge ahead. . . ," Melanie Lomax said.

"But I was utterly convinced that there will also be the interim victims, the people . . . that were going to have to put up with the fallout from this transition. . . . I was unwilling to carry this generational burden or the obligation to correct it.

"But I admired my mother. I felt that she was tough. I felt that she was a super woman. I thought that this kind of thing needed to be done. I just wished that we had not been, as kids, her fellow travelers."

Melanie Lomax said she reacted to her Southern exposure by following the example of her father, Lucius Lomax III, an attorney and real estate investor who ran unsuccessfully for the State Assembly in 1954 and the Los Angeles City Council in 1955.

Material Things

Lucius Lomax was more interested in material things than his wife was, and his daughter decided she wanted some of those things. She attended the University of California at Berkeley and Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Visions of practicing with her father crashed when he died during the month she graduated law school.

She became a deputy attorney for Los Angeles County and entered private practice five years ago.

"When she went north to go to school, I never expected Melanie to be an activist," Almena Lomax said. "I think that was a period of drawing a breath for her. After all, they had been integrating bathrooms and restaurants and we had done it at some risk."

Earning lots of money convinced Melanie Lomax that it was less satisfying than she had hoped, and when the late John T. McDonald III, former president of the Los Angeles NAACP, invited her to do volunteer work for the organization, she accepted.

McDonald concentrated on making corporations return the investments that minority communities had made in them.

'Antiseptic' Approach

Melanie Lomax found this "antiseptic" approach much safer than the tactics that often resulted in violence in the South. But she and her largely volunteer, 12-person staff had to fight becoming intimidated by some of the nation's largest corporations.

Lomax said McDonald persuaded her that "if we did our homework we could, through the use of publicity, equalize things, because most corporations are very protective of their public image. . . .

"They don't want anybody saying anything bad about them and they certainly don't want anyone accusing them of racism."

In their agreements with the NAACP, McDonald's pledged to increase its minority franchise ownership, while Coors agreed to name more black executives. Both companies pledged to spend more with black businesses.

That victory owes something to Almena Lomax's journey to the South 25 years ago.

"I think we remembered that strongly," said her son, Michael, a Ph.D. in Afro-American literature who teaches at Spelman College in Atlanta when he isn't involved with politics. "All of us have felt a determination to get back in there and be involved.

"We all felt the risks my mother had taken in the early 1960s shutting down the newspaper and packing six kids back and forth into the South.

"People thought mother was crazy. But she wasn't. She was doing things that 20 years later seem not only sane but remarkably insightful.

"I would say middle-class Los Angeles raised an eyebrow or two and there was a determination on my part and certainly on Melanie's to demonstrate that those risks left a strong determination in us to continue."

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