We are products of the Los Angeles public schools, longtime residents of the city, and most importantly friends. We became friends even though the odds were stacked against us. It happened in 1969 when the two of us — one black, one white — ended up at school together as the Los Angeles Unified School District finally began to confront its history of segregation. Race relations in L.A. were tense then. The scars were still fresh from the six-day-long 1965 Watts riots, and at L.A. high schools the races were, for the most part, separated.
A desegregation lawsuit had already been filed on behalf of minority students; busing plans and protests would come later. In 1969, when we started at Alexander Hamilton High School, we were part of a pilot program of voluntary integration at LAUSD: Project APEX — which stood for Area Program for Enrichment Exchange.
The exchange allowed students of any race to apply to attend a few classes a week at a high school where they would be in the minority. White kids could go to black schools; black kids could go to white schools. Our class — the class of 1972 — was first up. Joel was already on track to start at Hamilton, on the Westside. Paul's mom wanted her son to go to Hamilton as well. She camped out overnight in front of the school to make sure Paul got in.
Hamilton, built in 1931, was mostly a white and Jewish school until Project APEX. When the school year started, some white families pulled their children from the school. You could feel the tension — even fear — in the air. The races stayed segregated. It seemed that Hamilton would continue to reflect the divisions that plagued all of L.A.
But the faculty and administration of Hamilton High moved boldly and proactively. Starting in December, they suspended regular academic and extracurricular activities for one day every so often. Instead of going to classes and hanging out with our usual friends, the entire student body met in a "convocation." We were broken up into multiracial groups of about 30 each; our parents, outside counselors, community leaders and social workers were brought in as facilitators.
The idea was to mix us up, force us to get to know each other, and then to knit us together as a whole rather than as separate white and black parts. It was mostly a chance to start talking — about our perceptions and misperceptions, about school, about almost anything.
It seems so simple, but it worked. During those sessions, friendships formed, prejudice waned and our lives were forever changed, most definitely for the better.
The two of us sat across from each other at the first convocation. We each had wrong-headed ideas and fears about each other that began to dissipate that day. Our friendship got its start at the first convocation.
The tensions at Hamilton weren't erased overnight, but everyone knew the "group therapy" helped. The student body wanted the media to tell our story. But no one showed up, so we demonstrated outside the local CBS affiliate. That got attention: black and white students picketing together. A year and a half after the first convocation, the two of us ran for class leadership positions, more or less as a unit. Joel was elected senior class president and Paul was elected student body president, a sign to us of how much had changed.
Make no mistake: We graduated into a world where racism was and still is real. We both give lectures in our respective specialties, usually addressing conferences of our fellow doctors. One of us, even now, can have difficulty getting in to the conference venues to get his credentials; the other walks in without any credentials at all. One of us is frequently addressed as a member of the serving staff at conference receptions. This sort of litany could go on and on.
Now we see the videotapes and follow the investigation of police shootings. We know protesters gather at Los Angeles Police Department news conferences. We hear the chants of Black Lives Matter at campaign rallies. Is racial strife worse now than it was when we were growing up? There is no easy answer to this question, but one thing that was true then is still true today: Direct, personal interaction is the prescription for calming the strife.
Our leaders keep talking about the need for a "national conversation" on race. Let's start it here, with our children. We'd like to see LAUSD close down all its high schools for a few days this year (and every year), and use the time to hold convocations like the ones we experienced at Hamilton.
If we really want to bring people together, then we must do exactly that — bring them together. It worked for the two of us and the hundreds of others who attended Hamilton High with us. It can work again today.
Dr. Paul Wallace is a dermatologist and Dr. Joel Strom is a dentist.