|REMEMBERING JOHN BUGGS
By Paul Weeks
(originally published in the Stockton Record July 6, 2004)
Most of my heroes in nine decades of life wore no military medals or ribbons, had no museums or libraries or bridges named after them, no statuary in heroic poses, no string of best-selling biographies after their demise.
I wish I could make flags fly, drums roll and bugles blow for a moment here for John Buggs. John was a vital news source when I was covering the civil rights revolution of the 1960s for the Los Angeles Times. We had met a few years earlier when the old L.A. Mirror first opened the city's eyes to the plight of its growing populations of Blacks.
As director of the County Commission on Human Relations, Buggs introduced me to "their" community where we explored the issues of education, employment and housing, long neglected by the so-called "white" press.
John had earned his stripes in the long struggle to make America truly believe that all of us are created equal. He grew to mentor size in my eyes -- educator, philosopher, confidant, risk-taker and, above all, my close friend.
He sprang from strong parentage. From a family emerging from slavery, John's father was Georgia's first Black physician.
Legend has it that the first Mr. Buggs got his name while in slavery, and his owner moved him from the fields of the plantation to the master's house. He listened when he drove the big boss' carriage to town. He caught every nuance in the house every day, and reported to the other slaves every night. "He put a bug in our ear," they would say.
The first Mr. Buggs would have been proud to see young John go on to a bachelor's degree from Dillard in 1939 and a master's two years later from Fisk.
And what was the first job opened to this brilliant young man with a master's in sociology? The Union Pacific railroad draped a napkin over his arm and put him to work as a dining car waiter on the run from Chicago to the West Coast.
John's turn came around in the 1940s when the Fessenden Academy for Black youth in Florida named him as its director. And after hours, as an activist for the NAACP, he registered blacks to vote. Shortly, the organization's state secretary was assassinated, and they said John would be "next."
John was scheduled to give the graduation address in 1951. Word spread that the professor had a gun of his own under the formal gown. His speech was punctuated by applause -- not gunfire.
Our first meeting in 1955 sputtered with his words like gunfire -- startling, but gratifying for me to get the lowdown on the worsening situation in Los Angeles. His lecture to this green reporter was peppered with statistics galore.
Mingle with your news sources a no-no? Not for us. John and his wife, Polly, would come over to our house and dance on the patio to the jazz beat of the day.
When the race situation deteriorated further after I joined The Times, John confided one day on a "not-for-attribution" basis, that "This town is going to erupt in violence one of these days if we can't get some understanding," and that it would be devastating not only to the poor, but also to the city at large.
Under Otis Chandler's assumption of the publisher's chair, the old gray lady of Spring Street had turned into a lively newspaper where minorities' problems could be aired. But when a new managing editor moved in, things changed. He took me off the civil rights beat.
"Apparently I haven't got the message across to The Times," I blustered, that -- and here I quoted my "anonymous" source again -- Watts was about to explode.
Seven months later, Watts erupted. Thirty-four people died.
The Times won a well-earned Pulitzer prize for coverage of the riot and its aftermath. Alas, prizes aren't awarded for less-dramatic riot prevention.
John died on March 7, 1995, after Alzheimer's disease had cut short his term as staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. By then, it is notable that finally a Black mayor, Tom Bradley, and a Black county supervisor, Yvonne Brathwaite-Burke, with a legion of civil-rights workers, attended his last rites.
Paul Weeks is a distinguished veteran journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Daily News, Mirror, Times, and later the RAND Corporation. He lives in Oceanside and works as a freelance writer.
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