John Florez: Freedom is not a state of tranquility

Published: Saturday, July 5 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Saturday, July 5 2014 3:14 p.m. MDT

Johanna Workman, Deseret News Archives

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Mexicans, Asians or blacks not allowed, or need not apply. That’s just the way it was in Utah 50 years ago in schools, restaurants, hotels, housing, jobs and lending institutions. Racial slurs were commonplace. That was before the 1964 Civil Rights Act that we now celebrate.

Many people of color, before the civil rights movement, "knew their place" and did not try to challenge the system. They warned their children to do the same: "Just mind your business and be good." And as we grew up in Utah, we experienced the same discrimination as our parents. We saw black entertainers come to perform who were denied access to restaurants and hotels. Those who performed at places such as the old Hotel Utah had to take the back door and freight elevator. Black musicians who came to perform at Saltair, Lagoon, Coconut Grove or the Rainbow Rendezvous had to stay with friends or at cheap hotels; for their own entertainment, they would "jam" all night at the long-gone Dixieland Club in North Salt Lake.

Many did not take the advice of their parents to "know their place," even though they, too, suffered indignities. They said, "No more." They became the early fighters for civil rights in Utah. Among them were Al Fritz, William Gregory, Henry Sexton, Mignon Richmond and Alice Kasai; they were joined by others: Mickey Duncan, Rey Florez, Stephen Smoot, Bob Freed, Phil Poulsen, who all stood up and said, "Enough is enough." They were the pioneers of the civil rights movement in Utah. They spoke out and were often seen as malcontents, troublemakers; but that never stopped them in their fight for civil rights for all people.

In 1965, as I started organizing the central city neighborhood where many minorities lived, Richmond’s home became my office. I walked the neighborhood, knocking on doors, inviting residents to come and work together to improve their community. The older minorities thanked me and sent me on; they “knew their place.” The young did not. They were ready to stand up for their rights and community. Soon, the older folks and white neighbors joined in and became advocates for their community, working side by side to improve their neighborhood, child care, jobs, tutoring, school lunches, cleanups and voter registration.

Neighbors of all backgrounds started the Central City Community Center that stands as a symbol of what can happen when people believe in their own power to improve their community. By working together around a common purpose, people find we have more in common than different. While the center stands as a physical symbol, the more lasting thing is people knowing that by working together, they can determine their own destiny.

Each generation has different experiences, different from the one before. Each must forge its world, hopefully by learning from the experiences of past generations. Today, it seems we are victims of our own abundance, and we don’t have the opportunity to struggle and work together. Now, our people appear more divided, with remnants of discrimination continuing.

What we often forget is that freedom is not a state of tranquility. The struggle for civil rights we won 50 years ago must be fought over and over. Keeping our institutions responsive to change is the responsibility each of us has living in a pluralistic society.

Utah native John Florez served on the U.S. Senate Labor Committee, as Utah industrial commissioner and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and on the Commission on Hispanic Education. Email: jdflorez@comcast

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