The ‘Stick

Last night’s Monday Night Football game (likely) marked the end of the Candlestick Park era.  This was a stadium that was so difficult to get to by public transportation, and so miserably cold once you got there, that my childhood memories of Giants games there are much more about the experience of getting to, and being at, the stadium than anything that happened on the field.

Jed at StickJed Jacobsohn, former photo editor of the Berkeley High Jacket, posted this picture of himself at Candlestick after last night’s game. Jed, now an extremely successful sports photographer, has been shooting at the ‘Stick for 23 years. He’s had photos on the cover of Sports Illustrated (kind of puts our letter to the editor in perspective) and the front page of the New York Times.  He’s as good as they get.

I like to joke that I am responsible for Jed’s career (I was his “boss” as editor-in-chief of the Jacket when he was photo editor), but the truth is he was well on his way before he even started shooting for the Jacket.  He is one of those people who knew from a very early age what he wanted to do, he honed his craft in school, and then he went out and worked his way up to the elite of his profession.

WoodsHere on the left is one of Jed’s photographs for the Jacket, in a special edition celebrating the 1989-90 BHS women’s basketball team.  That team was led by senior Jualeah Woods, who is featured in Jed’s photo and is now the assistant coach of the USC women’s basketball team.  I remember the thrill of watching the Berkeley High women play for the state championship at the Oakland Coliseum that year, even though they eventually lost to the legendary Lisa Leslie and her Morningside High team.  I was up in the stands.  As usual, Jed, with his multiple cameras, was down there right in the action, just like he was last night at the ‘Stick.

Billy Ball

24 years ago, I was a junior at Berkeley High.  On Christmas Day of that year, Billy Martin, one of Berkeley’s most famous public school graduates, passed away.Billy Martin  After reading a tribute article in Sports Illustrated about Martin’s childhood in West Berkeley, my friend Jason Brand and I dug up a cartoon in the 1946 Berkeley High yearbook featuring Martin arguing with an umpire, which of course reminded us of his legendary fights with umpires as a major league manager.

We sent the cartoon to Sports Illustrated on a whim, and were stunned when the magazine agreed to publish it as a letter to the editor.  For 16-year-old sports fans, having a letter published in Sports Illustrated was pretty much the only thing on our bucket list.

By the way, the column we read about Billy Martin’s childhood, which prompted us to send in the cartoon, was written by famed sports journalist and Berkeley High alum Ron Fimrite.  It is an illuminating glimpse into life in West Berkeley in the late 1930s and early 1940s.  For example, check out this description of Burbank Junior High (which was located on the site of the current BUSD offices at 2020 Bonar street):

West Berkeley was where . . . impoverished newcomers could afford to live, and it is where they sent their children to school. And so those schools, most specifically Burbank Junior High, became mini-war zones in themselves, beachheads where the entrenched fought fiercely to preserve their turf from the invading hordes. Billy went to Burbank Junior High, and so, a little later, did I. I can recall, on my first day there, inquiring of a classmate what the kids did for amusement at recess. This boy regarded me as if I had just debarked from a spacecraft. “We have razor fights,” he said levelly. That kind of took the kick out of recess for me. There were, in fact, two ways to survive Burbank’s tribal wars—learn to be a terrific street fighter, as Billy did, or become the companion of somebody who could fight better than all the rest.

More Berkeley integration history

I wrote a few days ago about former Superintendent Neil Sullivan’s book about the 1968 voluntary integration of Berkeley’s public elementary schools. A bunch of people have already asked me to borrow the book, so I guess there is some interest in the topic.Rokeach brief

If you want further details about the 1968 integration plan, as well as more recent history about the integration plans that followed the 1968 plan, you should read this brief written by former school board member Miriam Rokeach.

Rokeach wrote the brief in 2008 in support of the District’s legal defense of its current school assignment plan, which was ultimately upheld by the courts.  The brief is thoroughly-researched and very readable.  I recommend it.

This is a remarkable book.

I have long known that Berkeley was one of the first cities of its size to voluntarily integrate its public schools in the late 1960s.  This occurred about 15 years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that state-sponsored segregation was unconstitutional.  The delay reflects the prevalence, in cities like Berkeley, of segregation that was not ordered by law but was instead the result of residential housing patterns. Now is the Time In Berkeley in the 1960s, few African-American families lived in the hills, and few white families lived in the West and South Berkeley flats.  The schools at the time, particularly at the elementary level, reflected the demographics of their neighborhoods.  That is, until the Berkeley school board voted in 1968 to implement a two-way busing plan to transport African-American students from the flats to the K-3 schools in the hills, and white students from the hills to the 4-6 schools in the flats.

I knew that this had occurred and I participated in this busing plan as a student in the early 1980s; I took the bus every day to Columbus (now Rosa Parks).  But I never knew the story behind the integration of the Berkeley schools until I read, over Thanksgiving, the account of this effort in a book written by the Superintendent who shepherded the plan, Neil V. Sullivan.  Sullivan wrote the book in 1969, just after implementing the controversial elementary school busing plan, so his writing has a tangible immediacy.  He was not crowing about the success of integration upon reflection; he was urgently advocating for integration in the moment, hopeful and confident it would work but nervous enough to continue making the case throughout the book.  (The book poignantly includes a foreword by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., written less than a year before he was assassinated.)

Sullivan’s methods, described in gripping detail, were a model for a school district administration’s engagement with the community on sensitive and critical issues.  Berkeley residents can be proud of our city’s historic decision to integrate its schools, but we should not presume that it was easy to accomplish.  Sullivan and his allies faced literally thousands of community members at massive school board meetings (held in the Berkeley Community Theater), including many residents who were bitterly opposed to integration and, in some cases, terrified of it.  Sullivan never demonized his opponents, and he recognized that many parents, even those who supported integration, had legitimate concerns about what form the busing regime would take, how much it would cost, and what it would mean for their children.

To my mind, Sullivan was a civil rights hero.  He bravely fought for racial justice, and did so in a way that effected real, lasting change.  (And not just in Berkeley, by the way.)  In addition to the fascinating history, what struck me, though, was how far we still have to go.  The immediate challenge of Sullivan’s generation was to integrate the schools.  But, as Sullivan recognized, integration was a step forward, not a panacea.  The challenges we face today are different, but no less complicated, and no less demanding of visionary leadership.

The book is out of print and I couldn’t even find an image of the cover online, so I just took a picture of it.  It’s available at the Berkeley public library, and I also have a copy I’m happy to lend out to anyone.  Email me if you want to borrow it.