“In 1947 I was arrested for the most heinous crime anybody in the state of California has ever been arrested for. I was arrested for voting.”
Community Organizer, Civil Rights Activist–Born in San Francisco in 1905, at the time discrimination was acute. Childhood memories include being barred from public swimming pools for fear by whites that black skin color would contaminate the water. Blacks were allowed only the most menial and low-paying jobs up until World War II. His father was a leader in the NAACP and the Baptist community, yet he was unable to earn enough money to provide sufficient food for his family. Ray’s dominant memory of childhood is of always being hungry and thinking about ways to get food. He turned to stealing at an early age and spent the early part of his adult life in and out of jail. It wasn’t until he discovered politics that he gave up his criminal life style. His sister encouraged him to join the Young Communist League (although he was in his 30s) and his views of the world and social responsibility changed dramatically. One of his first and most important accomplishments was in fighting discrimination in the shipyards during World War II..
With World War II and the need for increased production for the war effort, skilled jobs previously reserved for whites were now opened up for blacks. Ray began working in the shipyards, but soon discovered the union for shipyard workers, the Boilermakers Union, refused to allow blacks to join. They were forced to join an auxiliary association and pay an initiation fee to both. The association merely collected dues,- all bargaining was done by the union. Thus blacks paid money but had no voice or vote. With the help of the Communist Party, Ray organized the Shipyard Workers Committee Against Discrimination and served as chair of the committee. After a three year struggle, they were successful in getting a Federal Court ruling ordering the Boilermakers Union to integrate. The Supreme Court referred to the precedent set in the shipyard worker’s case in the Court’s historic school desegregation case.
After the war Ray continued organizing around civil rights and community issues. These activities led to his infamous arrest.
In 1947 I was arrested for the most heinous crime anybody in the state of California has ever been arrested for. And I’ll have to preface that by saying the first 35 years of my life was a mess, a solid mess and it’s not funny. I went to prison for things that I did. It was a bad period of my life. I am ashamed of it. But the last 40 years of my life I’m proud of. It was only after I joined the Communist party in 1938 that I woke up and began to do the kinds of things that have to be done. When I say that I was arrested for the most henious crime, I was arrested for voting–because in the early part of my life I served four years in prison for robbing a gas station, and as a felon I did not have the right to vote. I did not know that.
I was arrested after I went to the Oakland City Council to protest police brutality, which was then, as it is now, rampant, including murder. The incident that I spoke on was of a woman arrested, now listen carefully, for assaulting a police officer with a cherry seed. To understand the whole picture you got to get the background of what was going on in those times. Four so-called progressive city councilmen had been elected to the city council, and I say so-called because they all turned out to be sad characters. Anyhow, they were opposed to the Noland political machine and the powers that be were in an uproar. This, together with two white cops being in jail for raping a girl, and add to that another cop in jail for murdering his wife, and you begin to get something of the political climate that I got involved in when I went to the city council to protest the behavior of the cop.
The Saturday preceding, a black woman was eating cherries while her brother was being given a ticket. She flicked the cherry seeds at her brother making fun of him. And the cop said to her, “If you hit me with one of those cherry seeds I’ll put your black ass in jail.” The word black at that time had a different connotation. It was a real bad word. She got upset and went upstairs to call the cops to get this cop for using that language. The cop chased after her into the house with his gun out and dragged her outside, intimidating the other people in the house with his gun. I got a phone call and came down. I checked every detail of the story to be sure we were right. I wanted the facts to be absolutely clear and true.
I addressed the council in regards to this incident and several other cases we had documented, including murders by policemen. I was so mad that I came close to tears–that’s the way I am. I’m emotional about this sort of thing. I was really upset, police brutality was rampant.
Well they did not investigate police brutality. They investigated their scapegoat, Ray Thompson. They found that he was an ex-convict, they found that he was a member of the Communist Party, and they could see that he was a black man. They had no trouble with that. So they busted me and threatened to send me to San Quentin for 25 years on five counts of illegal voting. I could have been given 6000 years because I had registered some 700 people to vote and collected 300 signatures in the Wallace campaign for President.
The trial was interesting in itself. The number of police they had there was enough to take care of an arch criminal, let alone a person like myself who had dared to vote. They had two single files of cops that I had to walk through to get into court. The F.B.I. was there, you name it. It was a crime no one in the state of California before or since has ever been tried for or convicted of. I was technically not guilty. They would have had to prove that I knowingly voted illegally. They found me guilty of a simple misdemeanor, voting illegally. I was given a fine of 1500 dollars. People in the Party and friends paid the fine.
There was some debate in the Party. There were those who wanted me to go to prison to serve some time as an example of the kind of things that go on in this society, to rally people. Those people later quit or were expelled. Well I wasn’t interested in getting rallied around, especially sitting in Q. My wife wasn’t interested, and she pitched a boogie-woogie about it. They finally got the point and got my ass out of there and back to where it should have been in the first place.
Having been in prison, I had no desire to go back, and I can honestly say that I was really afraid. I was not afraid to the point that I would have done anything wrong-there were indications that if I were to say the right thing to the right person nothing would happen to me. And I avoided those things. But at the same time I was scared, and I did not present the kind of image I would have liked to present because of this kind of fear. I am a very emotional person. For example, I was asked to speak at a black church. I got half way through my speech and I wanted to cry. I really had to grit my teeth to get myself together with the help of the minister, who finally brought me around to thinking without crying. I could have been far more effective if I had better control of my emotions. It was an ordeal for me. That is one of the reasons I’ve always admired people like Martin Luther King who can speak without letting their emotions overcome them. I am not a religious person, but I have the greatest respect for Martin Luther King.
Internationally known singer, Paul Robeson, spoke at a fundraiser for Ray’s case. Ray remained active in the the civil rights struggle, and when the NAACP, succumbing to pressure from the House Unamerican Activities Committee, purged him for being a communist, he joined the National Negro Congress and became an officer in it. In 1960 he left the Communist party and began working in the Consumer Cooperative movement. The Co-ops was a consumer-owned chain of supermarkets in northern California, centered in Berkeley. Their goal was to provide quality food, honestly packaged, at a reasonable price. In 1968 Ray was elected to the governing board of the Co-op. In support of the growing United Farm Workers struggle, he established a policy that the Co-op honor the UFW boycott and refuse to sell any items boycotted by labor organizations.
Edited by Richard Bermack from interview by Bruce Kaiper, Radical Elders Oral History Project.