Alice McGrath left her imprint on Los Angeles history when she was still a young woman. Her dedication to justice and her participation in the appeals court reversal of the Sleepy Lagoon Murder trial convictions in the early 1940s cemented her reputation as a civil rights powerhouse. Yet Alice is not a lawyer, nor has she received a college degree. Alice is passionate about justice, and her rage at injustice has carried her through.
Just looking at activist Alice can be deceptive. She is a diminutive, pretty woman with a silver pixie haircut. She is casually dressed in a white shirt and jeans, but wears full makeup with dangling flower earrings. Her high-wattage smile is reserved for those whom she trusts. Her initial wariness with a stranger slowly gives way to genuine affection and warmth. And, despite being in her ninth decade of life, the woman still has the stunning cheekbones of a high-fashion model.
Alice McGrath has lived for 37 years in the same cliff-hugging house up a narrow, winding road in the hills of Ventura, although she said she will be moving to the “flats” of Ventura soon. After all, she explained, she won’t be able to drive forever.
The house is immaculate and the furniture is simple. Art is hung in every room and hallway, many pieces are gifts from friends collected over the years. Alice has a preference for artwork that has a backstory, and once the painting has been situated on her wall, there it will remain for a long time. The artwork is almost a metaphor for Alice’s lifelong commitment to civil justice.
IT ONLY TAKES ONE ADVENTURER
Alice was born in 1917 in Calgary, Canada. Her parents were poor Jewish immigrants from Russia and spoke only Yiddish in the home. Alice said she wondered why, when most Russian immigrants were settling in the United States, her father chose Calgary.
“He said they wanted immigrants and they treated immigrants very well,” she said. “[During her parents’ lives in Russia] Jews could not own land, and they could not travel freely. The children could not go to school except under very special circumstances, and they were not treated well. So Canada welcomed them. The next question was, ‘So how did you know there’s a little place called Canada?’ And he said, ‘It only takes one adventurer.’ That’s the way it happens.”
Despite their Jewish background, Alice’s parents did not keep kosher in the new country. Her father felt it was another symbol of being an outsider. “When my father left Russia, as soon as he got to the county line, he ate pork. It was his rebellion. The reason for that was Jewish boys could go to school if they had a Gentile sponsor. His father wouldn’t allow him because he would be ‘defiled.’ And my father never got over it.”
Alice developed an empathy for society’s outsiders when she was still in school. Her family moved to Southern California when she was 5 years old, and only then did Alice learn to speak English. Her Yiddish accent followed her to high school.
“Throughout my life, I have never lived in a Jewish community,” she said. “There wasn’t overt anti-Semitism. It was, ‘This little girl is different than we are.’ Kids came to play at our house, and they would ask about the food we were eating. They’d never seen it. That really made ‘the other’ definition of me.”
Alice said that ghettos, whether forced or not, are communities where people with the same culture and language lived together.
“It is a refuge and a prison,” she said. “It is a refuge in terms of when I come home from whatever I’m doing, I am with friends. But I have to go out every day into the place where I am ‘the other.’ And in that sense it’s a prison, because I haven’t been integrated in that ‘other.’”
After excelling in high school, Alice attended Los Angeles City College, but dropped out during her first semester because her family could not afford the books and streetcar fare. She said she met other students who opened her eyes to the world.
“They would talk about things that just riveted me because I hadn’t really had any of that,” she said. “And I thought ‘Oh boy, there’s a really interesting world out there, isn’t there?’”
Alice continued, “By this time, I had begun to articulate the things that I felt. Racism was terrible. Anti-Semitism was terrible. What they were doing to black people was terrible. I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to work for an organization that is interested in the welfare of working people and takes on not just the working aspect, but all of the social issues? I thought I would like to become a Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) organizer.”
“The CIO took on child care issues, women’s issues, everything that encompasses our whole life. I was in heaven.”
SO NOW YOU WILL
While still working at a series of “really crummy jobs” Alice became ill with pleurisy. She said, “We didn’t have antibiotics then, and they put me in the hospital and hoped I would survive.”
The political atmosphere in Los Angeles at that time was one of fear, prejudice and segregation. Mexican youth gangs had been fighting with each other, and a Mexican national, Jose Diaz, was found dead following a free-for-all battle at Williams Ranch near a resevoir named the Sleepy Lagoon. The ensuing trial of People v. Zammora (1942) was the largest murder trial in California history, with 22 Mexican men charged with first- or second-degree murder.
The judge’s conduct during the trial was controversial. Even the charges were colored by a report from a Los Angeles Police Department captain to the grand jury. That report said that Mexicans are inherently criminal and violent and have no regard for life because they are descendants of the Aztecs.
As for the charges of murder and conspiracy to murder, Alice was outraged.
“No cause of death (for Jose Diaz) was established,” she said. “Without cause of death, they can’t call it murder.”
After the trial began, Alice recovered from her illness and began attending court. Her reaction to the proceedings was visceral.
“I was enraged,” she said. “I just was so upset about the way the judge and the whole way this trial was going. The behavior of the judge was simply unacceptable in any decent society.”
During the proceedings, the judge refused to allow the defendants to cut their hair or to accept fresh clothing from their families and would not admit evidence that the defendants had been beaten by the police. Also, the defendants were not allowed to consult with their counsel during the trial sessions.
The all-white jury convicted three defendants of first-degree murder with life in prison and nine defendants of second-degree murder. All were sent to San Quentin Prison.
Following the convictions, a legal team, headed by noted historian and lawyer Carey McWilliams, formed the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee for the purpose of convincing the appeals court to reverse the murder verdicts. Alice volunteered to work for the group fulltime, performing mundane chores such as running the mimeograph machine, stuffing envelopes, organizing Hollywood fundraisers and communicating with the defendants in prison.
Alice then heard the phrase which altered her life.
“Carey McWilliams came to me and said we want you to be the executive secretary of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee,” she said. “And I said (feigning meekness) ‘I’ve never done anything like that before.’ And Carey said the few words that actually, literally changed my life. He said, ‘So now you will.’ Can you imagine how lucky I was?”
A state appeals court unanimously reversed all of the convictions, finding insufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy and found the trial judge’s conduct to be biased and intemperate.
During her tenure on the committee, Alice was gently pushed by her mentor, McWilliams, into public speaking for her cause. She began with small groups and gradually gained confidence.
“Within a year I was making presentations to the Longshoremen’s Union with 1,000 members,” she said. “So I got up there and, with a flourish, they gave us $1,000.”
The experience with the union, led by Harry Bridges, was a turning point for Alice.
“From then on,” she said “it seemed to me that all of this was very easy and I loved doing it. I thought I could do anything now. That was the formative thing.”
IT’S LIKE HOUSEWORK
“This is my work,” Alice said. “This is what I do.”
Alice said she never considered her work as something that hinges on winning. Winning and losing often determines whether other activists stick with the cause.
“There are people who spend a lot of time and many years in civil justice, and some of them go the distance,” she said. “Some of them dropped out. The ones that bother me are the ones that say they are disillusioned. So what was their illusion? That they were going to win?
“I say we hope we win,” Alice added. “But we don’t go into activities like this with the sole purpose of winning. That can’t be the engine that drives you. Besides, we don’t get to win that often. You are active or passive, and passive is not acceptable to me. I have a better life when I’m active.”
When Alice was working for the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, the FBI kept some members under surveillance. They were suspected of being active members of the Communist Party, and the committee was charged with being a Communist-front organization.
“The FBI would come to neighbors asking questions,” Alice said. “I found out much later through the Freedom of Information Act that [the committee’s] file was filled with lies. I was much more concerned in those days because they could take anybody and put them away.”
Alice added, “Not as bad as these days. I think it might embarrass them to incarcerate a 90-year-old woman. I assume anything I say on the phone is picked up.”
Alice said she felt sadness and anger about recent political events such as the passage of the Patriot Act,.
“These criminals have taken over,” she said. “Everything we worked for is being taken apart, so we have to keep going. It’s like housework. It never ends. You can’t clean your house one morning and then never clean it again. If it gets dirty you can’t say well I cleaned it yesterday.”
I NO LONGER FEEL AFRAID
Alice has many other accomplishments aside from those early in her life. She has written books about and eventually taught classes in self-defense. But her take on self-defense is decidedly different. Alice said she first considered a self-defense class for her son when he was 9 years old.
“My son was very timid and fearful for no reason that I could see,” she said.
“Is somebody bullying you?” she asked her son at the time
“No,” he said.
“Did someone hit you?” she asked.
“No,” he said
“So what is it?” she persisted.
“I just feel scared all the time,” he said.
“So I decided that something has to happen,” she said. “At that time there were no self-defense classes. It was boxing or judo.”
“Boxing?” her son said. “You’re going to let people hit me in the nose? So I could learn not to have that done? I could have that done right now.”
Alice said she was unhappy with the traditional methods of teaching judo until she found a supportive teacher for her son.
“At the end of 12 classes (her son) said, ‘I don’t know if I’ve learned anything, but I no longer feel afraid,’” Alice said.
It was then that Alice began teaching basic classes at a local college, urging young women to stand up for themselves.
“I taught them a few tactics that didn’t require a lot of strength,” she said. “It wasn’t complicated so it didn’t require a lot of study. What it takes is knowing there is something you can do.”
I THOUGHT IT WAS HEAVEN
More recently, Alice focused on the needs of the poor in Nicaragua. She said she initially traveled there to see what was happening firsthand. But her initial encounter was less than wonderful.
“I went with a group of 80 people, which is ludicrous,” she said. “You don’t take 80 people any place. Half our time was spent getting on and off the bus.”
But Alice observed that the government was providing for its people.
“They had programs that had never existed,” she said. “School was free through college. They had special training for children with disabilities. I thought it was heaven. I fell in love with Nicaragua. I decided to lead delegations there just to see Nicaragua. Doctors to doctors. Teachers to teachers. Farmers to farmers.”
Alice led 86 trips to Nicaragua with 40 different groups.
Summing up her life’s work, Alice said, “I am an outlaw activist because usually I choose a project that I want to do. I just happen to be in a little off street, and I’ve enjoyed my work and I think it’s been useful whether it lasts or whether it has to be done again, which it does. It’s housework.”