Name of Song Has Become National Disgrace, Novelist Says
(This is Guy Endore's speech on the recent Al Jarvis radio program.)
For those who think that "Sleepy Lagoon" is only the title of a song—it is also the name of a disgrace which should be on the conscience of every decent American—and especially every decent person who lives in Los Angeles—because we allowed it to happen here.
If you were like the average resident of Los Angeles probably you would remember vaguely something about the 22 young Mexican-American boys who were on trial in the fall of 1942. Maybe you remember that 17 of them were convicted—five of assault and 12 of murder. And maybe you said to yourself when you heard of that conviction, "Good. They got what they deserved. This ought to teach them a lesson!" And then maybe you forgot them.
There weren't too many who remember them after the day in January, 1943, when the judge set the sentences—five convicted of assault—one year in the county jail. Nine convicted of second degree murder, five years to life. Three convicted of first degree murder, life imprisonment.
But there were some who couldn't forget. They were the ones who had sat through the trial. They were the ones who had not been misled by the hysterical news stories. They were the ones who had spoken with the boys on trial and to their families. They were the ones who knew that those boys had been convicted not of the crime of murder, but of the crime of being of Mexican extraction.
ALARMED AT FARCE
This was the group which was made up of some attorneys, some labor leaders, churchmen and some civic-minded individuals. They had become alarmed when they saw the farcical trial that was taking place in Department 49 of the Superior Court, but their efforts on behalf of the boys during the trial were not successful. So came the conviction which the prosecution could brag about as the largest single conviction in the history of California law.
Soon afterward the 12 boys convicted of murder had the chains put around their ankles and around their wrists and took a trip north, to San Quentin.
I think I can best describe the feelings of those boys by quoting from a letter which one of them sent to a friend on the day he was convicted of first degree murder. He wrote:
"I hope you will pardon me for this very short letter. I am sorry that things turned out the way they did, as I had very rosy expectations for the future. Did you ever make a castle cut of sand or mud when you were a very small girl in pigtails and took much pains and trouble to erect it, and all of a sudden a bigger kid came over and destroyed it for you? Well, my feelings are somewhat similar. It seems like the whole world just folded up on me and there is nothing I can do about it."
Well, there was nothing that he could do about it not where he was going. But there were people who could.... There was a meeting of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee. Carey McWilliams, the chairman of the committee spoke about the case. Told of the anti-Mexican prejudice which had permeated the trial Orson Welles presided.
What came out of that meeting was the decision to find some way of letting the people of Los Angeles know what had happened to those boys, and why they should be interested in the case. I was asked to write the story.
The "Sleepy Lagoon" was my first stop. What does that make you think of? Sounds nice doesn't it? The Sleepy Lagoon.
It wasn't at all nice. It was filthy. It was the kind of place kids use for a swimming pool when they have no other place to go. Calling it the Sleepy Lagoon was a beautiful bit of ironic humor.
The neighborhood kids used to hang around the Sleepy Lagoon all the time, and that's how the case came to be known by that name. Having the locale well in mind, I began the job of plowing through 6032 pages of the transscript of the trial.
The last stop was San Quentin Prison where I talked to the boys. I put it all together and it spelled fantastic.
Seventeen boys sentenced in this case—twelve of them for murder . . . and nowhere is there proof that any of the boys could definitely be linked with the death of Joe Diaz who was found dead on the night of August 1, 1942 after a brawl at a party.
No witnesses, no weapons, nothing. Only a conviction.
The mystery in this case is a little different from the mystery you ordinarily read. The mystery is what was behind the trial and conviction of those boys? Why were they convicted before the jury ever went out to deliberate? Who wanted it that way? And why?
I've tried to answer that in my book. I've tried to answer that and with it the reason why every person who lives in this community has a special interest in the Sleepy Lagoon case.