Growing Up During The Civil Rights Movement

May 1, 2014

Credit StoryCorps/Utah Public Radio

At StoryCorps, 23 year old Wesley Peterson interviewed his mom, 58 year old Diane Peterson, about growing up in Southern California during the Civil Rights Movement, and how that affected her decision to adopt him.

Wesley: First question I have for you, mom is what was it like growing up in Southern California during the 60's and the 70's. Like I know there was a lot of civil rights things happening. How did that affect you?

Diane: I was 11 when the Watt's riots occurred. So, I was real young. Not really very aware. I vaguely remember my parents being real concerned listening to the news. There was a lot of turmoil, a lot of fighting. And yet I was living in the middle class and so I didn't feel a lot of those feelings. About five or six year's later I went to Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach. The Long Beach Unified School  District was one of the first to adopt a voluntary desegregation. So, in my last year of high school there were volunteers my age from the west side of town who were bussed to our high school. I felt fine about it. My father at the time said to me one day as I was walking out the door to school "if you ever bring a black home I will kick you out of the house." So at that time...of course he was prejudice but I think also what I noticed as I was growing up he was very much  afraid...afraid of his children being at the wrong place at the wrong time getting involved in this racial turmoil.

Wesley: Did you feel safe living in Long Beach during this time?

Diane: You know, as I got older I felt less safe than I did,  you know, when I was younger.  Actually, my last year of high school I was in the house with my brother about four doors down from the little local market. The man that owned the market was Earl and actually I knew him since I was in Kindergarten. He was part of the family. I'd go down and get an Orange Crush and rot my teeth out. But anyway, my brother heard a gun shot and he told me to stay in the house and he ran out of the house and there with a gunshot wound in front of the little market was Earl. And he had been robbed.My brother had run back home and called 911 but he ended up dying. I realized then things were changing. California was a great place to grow up. And so it was hard to leave but also California was in the middle of a lots of controversies. There were a lot of people and as happy as I was living in California I also was stressed out. And so as I thought about finishing up my college I decided to take  off and go to Utah.

Wesley: Growing up through all of this did it have any effect on you and your decision when you adopted me as an infant as so like why you adopted a Hispanic child versus adopting a Caucasion child. Have you ever thought about that?

Diane: Oh, there was a lot of thought. I think that there was probably more thought than I really realized. I knew from the beginning that you would be Hispanic. Your birth father was Colombian. Birth mother Caucasion. Never even thought for a minute that that made a difference. But I remember when you were young and I'd go to school to like PTA meetings and people had seen us together before and they would maybe ask about you or ask if I had been married before. And I got to a place where I would make light of it. When someone would look and you then look at me or look at your dad and I could tell what they were thinking. I would say "doesn't he look like me...don't we look a like?" And then you would smile and laugh  and we would go home. And they'd  would go "oh ya, kinda!." They didn't know what to say. I was a very lucky person to grow up in the 60's and 70's in southern California. The opportunity I had to develop a belief system that God loves us all and that he sees us all as equal. But I would like to think that I made some choices to possibly encourage a more peaceful existence.

Wesley: You've always taught me to be like that. You always taught me to be a peacemaker and to not cause problems.

Diane: Well thank you Wes. And I love you Wes. I don't even think about what color you are.