Washington Press Club Foundation
Belva Davis:
Interview #2 (pp. 37-64)
June 28, 1992 in San Francisco, California
Shirley Biagi , Interviewer

Go to Session One | Session Three | Session Four | Session Five
Index | Cover | Home
Page 37

[Begin Tape 1, Side A]

Biagi: Let's start talking a little bit about Channel 5 [KPIX] and the women's angle here.

Davis: When I arrived, Nancy Reynolds, of course, was an anchor, so she was the sidekick to John Westin, who was the original unknowing sexist of all sexists. [Laughter.] He was not an evil person by any means. It's just that he was a product of his era and of the environment that was the prevalent one then. Women had these special little corners in which they lived, in the news business, anyway.

Wanda Ramey co-anchored the midday. It was mostly a women's audience, so it was very natural to do garden shows, the softer side of the news. It was not anything to be ashamed of. Our consciousness had not been raised to the fact that there was anything wrong with that, and I'm sure that women who did women's news made a tremendous contribution. I was a women's editor of my newspaper, and I didn't see anything wrong with it. It was my corner, and I was proud to own it. But later on, as we began to see and discuss more, coming out of the civil rights movement, equity, women's eyes began to open and they wanted a little bit more.

So now I start in a job in an office where there are only four full-time reporters. So what do you do if you're going to have only four full-time reporters and one of them is a woman? You say they're going to do everything. So I think I probably suffered from the trial by fire to see how much I could take, how far I could go. I do remember my very good friend now, but in those days, my buddy who's really a cops-and-robbers guy, Lou Calderon, was one of the first cameramen I worked with, and it was Lou's job to see what my breakpoint was going to be.

Biagi: Does he really admit that?

Davis: Now he does, yes, but then it was just fun and games. Everybody was in on it. There was nothing wrong with it that they could see. The thing was to see how I would hold up when I saw my first body, how I'd hold up when I saw the first blood on the street.

Biagi: How did you react when you saw your first body?

Davis: He will never know. [Laughter.] I still remember it today, I can tell you that, and I also still remember my first hot chase with bullets flying, and it all happened within the first two weeks of my employment at KPIX. There was a robbery, and there was a hot chase with the cops, and we were in the car tearing at such tremendous speeds, and we had terrible cars in those days because KPIX has always been pretty tight with a buck. So we're chasing and they're firing at the police, and somehow we got between them and the cops. For Lou, this was fun and games. He's on a two-way talking to the office. This is big stuff. He can let the guys in the office know what danger we're in. So he's speeding along, talking on the two-way, driving with one hand. I was working with Fred Zender then. Fred's on the desk. Then they say to Lou, is there any way he can get his Bell & Howell out and shoot. He says, "Well, I could let Belva hold the steering wheel

Page 37

Page 38

while I try to do this, but I don't think that she—we could try to do one of those things where we could change positions, but I don't think she's up to it." They were doing all these things. Well, I'm so scared to death. I didn't say a word. Anyway, we got through that day without wrecking the car or getting hit, and I was stoic, so they don't know what I thought.

But then within days, there was another shoot-out at a drugstore on Oak Street, in which a guy was really killed. Then within days of that, we came across the body of a woman over in Alta Park where rigor mortis had set in, and it was just amazing to me. I had heard about this, but the fact that when they turn this body over, they can never straighten the legs out, you know, and so forth, and we got there before the cops, of course, so you never put anything on the air unless it was covered in those days. Never, never. Not all this stuff we see today. Sheets went over anybody in any injury and no names came out till the first of kin [was notified], and all those niceties of the business that were exercised. I guess first of kin is still a consideration, but quite often it goes by the by these days.

Biagi: You bring up one thing that is important, the fact that he mentioned a Bell & Howell. You're talking about film here.

Davis: Oh, yes, we're talking film. We were still in black and white film. It was a long time before we got to color. We were the last station to get color film, even.

Biagi: What did that mean for covering the news? The timing?

Davis: You had to have everything in the processor by three [p.m.], and we didn't even have our own processor. We used to have to take it over to Diner's.

Biagi: Diner's is what?

Davis: Leo Diner's to have it processed. In fact, the cameramen all met up at this one place, because everybody was getting their film processed at this same spot over in North Beach at that time. We had sound cameras on film, but in a situation like this, you just pulled out the sixteen millimeter. All you needed was a picture, so you could voice-over it. Just getting a picture was a big deal.

Anyway, Lou's most famous comment was, when asked for an assessment of how I would do, his assessment was that I wouldn't last two weeks. [Laughter.]

Biagi: Do you think there was a conscious effort to test you?

Davis: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, definitely.

Biagi: Would this be a group agreement in the newsroom?

Davis: This is fun and games at the old gal's expense. Of course, I wasn't an old gal then, but the guys were just having fun.

Biagi: It was all guys and you?

Davis: Oh, yes. Geri Lou Cheney, the secretary, was the other woman.

Biagi: What was the newsroom like then? How big was it?

Page 38

Page 39

Davis: Small. There was Pat O'Brien, Rollin [Post], Ben Williams, and me. There were four of us. We were it. We covered the entire Bay Area, and that's big. You've got to remember that before Ben arrived, it had been Rollin Post and Pat O'Brien. Then Ben Williams was added and then I was added, so now we had four people in this newsroom, and that was it. So you really got to do everything, and we hired casuals on the weekends, but since we didn't have a forty-hour work week, I worked a lot.

Biagi: You mean a forty-hour work week requirement.

Davis: They didn't have to pay overtime at all.

Biagi: Because you weren't a union shop?

Davis: We were a union shop, but we didn't have—listen, network news guys just got a forty-hour work week in the not too distant past. They used to not want forty hours because they thought if they had a forty-hour work week and they were on a hot story, they'd be pulled off because they (management) would not want to bill it to overtime. They fought it, especially the Washington correspondents. They did not want it. But in any case, I ended up just being called, because I was the last hired, all the time until finally about a year later, it was the month of February where I ended up working every day for the whole month. I didn't have a day off for a month. Based on my time card, the union was able to go in and bargain for a forty-hour work week, showing abuse.

Biagi: How did that happen?

Davis: Because I complained. Don Tayer heard about it, I think through Bill Hillman. I complained. I was not a union person, and that's how I became a union person for life. I was complaining about it, because I still had two kids at home. A year later, Bill was then strongly in contention for the job at KTVU, where he still is.

Biagi: What job was that?

Davis: As a cameraman, apprentice cameraman at Channel 2. So I could see this is going to be trouble down the road if he has a job and I have a job and I'm working with no days off. He stayed home my first year and took care of the kids while he ran his freelance camera business, but everything was done from home, and he made his own schedule. He was the housefather long before the liberation movement for women started. He is just a terrific person. We decided as a family that I had a shot at it, and we were going to give me the best chance I could without having to worry about the kids.

Biagi: So he was helping you at home.

Davis: Oh, yes. He was the one getting the dinner and taking care. Deedee was not yet in grammar school.

Biagi: When did he go to work at Channel 2?

Davis: I think it was March or April of the following year, '68.

Biagi: So he was home for a year, '67. It was February of '68 that you had this month of work?

Page 39

Page 40

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: So he was able to stay home, but he went to work at Channel 2 then.

Davis: Our whole idea when we went into this was that I had the shot, I'd get it, and I'd try to really do my best. He would pick up whatever the slack was at home, and my goal would be to get him into the photographer's union.

You've got to say that we didn't set small goals, because there was not a black person professional commercial television news photographer in the state of California. So here we were going to try to break the color barriers in this union, and the reason was because it was one of those old rules where to come in you had to have three union members sign for you to become a member. What helped us, of course, was the whole environment in the country in terms of the civil rights movement and people realizing that things had to change. So by the time I learned the names of the guys that I worked with, Bill had one good friend, Will Sobey, who he'd gone to school with in Oakland, where he got his degree in photography. Will Sobey, of course, had pledged to help Bill get in, but it was up to me to get two people from Channel 5 [KPIX] to sign up. So I started working on them.

Biagi: It sounds like you were spending a lot of time together.

Davis: Of course, yes. We certainly were. Anyway, we succeeded.

Biagi: Did you see it as breaking the color barrier, or did you see it as getting Bill a job?

Davis: I think it was both. I don't know how we really sorted that out. He was a good photographer. We knew he belonged in the business, and we didn't see it as an impossibility. We just didn't see it as an impossibility. We knew that somebody had to do it one of these days, and we just decided it was going to be him. We had a very good friend who is another still photographer, the guy that started this Miss Bronze pageant, a great photographer in Southern California who had been trying to get in.

Biagi: Still had to get the recommendations.

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: So who were the other two people who gave the recommendations?

Davis: The guy who was the shop steward, a guy named Ralph Sandino. Ralph Sandino was the leader. I cannot remember the name of the other person, but two people in our newsroom signed for Bill. It was a time when TV news was just beginning to grow and become important and starting to make money for stations. The civil rights movement was under way, which spoke to the need to expand. And we'd been thinking about getting into this business.

Biagi: This time and earlier, you talked to me yesterday a little bit, when we stopped the tape, about your experiences as a black reporter and how in some cases it was a benefit to you to getting stories that other people wouldn't have had access to. I'd like you to talk about that and the early stages of your career.

Page 40

Page 41

Davis: Here I come into this television market with all my experience having been limited to covering blacks, because that's all I could do. There was a period when I tried to get a job as a newspaper reporter. I guess you know that. I mean, just take that for granted.

Biagi: I didn't know that.

Davis: Just take that for granted that if I was a writer and a fighter, then I would have been trying to get a job with newspapers, too.

Biagi: You didn't tell me about that.

Davis: I did try to get a newspaper job. It was so hopeless that it wasn't even worth mentioning.

Biagi: Even San Francisco Chronicle?

Davis: That was the last paper in the world that would have hired me. That was like the most conservative paper in the area. I was trying for things like the Call, the Call-Bulletin, and the Examiner. Even with the Hearst reputation, there was a consciousness on the part of the local people that things had to change.

Biagi: Did you go for interviews or just write letters?

Davis: Wrote letters. I never even got an interview at all, but I did meet Mildred Hamilton, retired many years ago, at the Examiner during that time, and a couple of other women feature writers who were very kind to me, did stories about me, in fact, and about my dreams and so forth of breaking the color line in this whole era. I guess the reason I bury that so is in my pursuit, my emphasis changed, because I just started looking at the future and decided, "If I'm going to beat my head against this wall, I might as well beat my head against the wall of the future," and that's how I saw TV. So my efforts to get a job in the newspaper business didn't have the vigor of my efforts to get a job in television.

Biagi: You talked yesterday about Malcolm X.

Davis: I was working for a black paper then, at the Independent. Race relations were so raw and the Black Muslims were so nationalistic, their reaction, I always figured, they tried to put themselves at the opposite post of the most avid white racist. They tried to appear the same in terms of blacks. Whites were devils and they wouldn't speak to them and all this. So they had a real problem, in particular Malcolm X, in even talking to whites.

Biagi: You should explain what he did.

Davis: He just would refuse to talk to a white reporter. Somebody black had to be sitting there, even though the white person would ask a question. He was very strict with it. It wasn't enough for the white person to ask a question and me to sit there as an interpreter; I had to actually say, "He wants to know—" [Laughter.] I had to repeat the question.

Biagi: You said your editor went along with you in one case and asked the question, and Malcolm X would answer you.

Davis: Yes. I would take notes, and Darryl would take notes, too, of what he'd said.

Page 41

Page 42

Biagi: Did it happen more than once?

Davis: Oh, yes. Because San Francisco at that time was a good organizing community for the Black Muslims. We had a very active Black Muslim community here. Mohammed Ali was converted during that era. In fact, one of the pictures that I've spent my life regretting not having was a visit of Mohammed Ali when he came out to visit the Muslim community and he took what's called a stroll down Fillmore, which was strictly the black street then. He did it more than once. I don't know what day of the week it was or anything, but I've told you that quite often my children worked as much as I did, because they went where I went, and whatever was happening that day, Bill was taking still pictures and I was working, so my daughter came with me. She was a little toddler. He walked the whole street carrying our daughter on his shoulder and in his arms, so there are all these pictures of her, and I don't have one today. I wish so much that I did. Of course, we ran that in the paper, but I don't have a tear sheet, nor do I have a picture. I had it for many years, but in the moves or doing things, it got lost.

So there was this interest, because now you had Mohammed Ali, the world boxing champ, in this community, and people wanted to know more about them. Then you had this fireball, Malcolm X, who was "stirring up trouble," as they said in those days. So people wanted to know more about them. I don't know whether this happened all over the country. I can only give you my experiences here.

Biagi: What was your reaction to Malcolm X?

Davis: I thought he was just a dynamic person. You know how there are people that you can meet, and whether you agree with what they say or not, it's sort of like the Ross Perot* phenomenon. If you're in an audience with him, he's got your attention. There's just no ignoring his presence unless it's so noisy that you can't hear him. If he's speaking and it's quiet enough to hear, there is just something about the ability to deliver and to keep you going. In a different kind of a way, but that same kind of human magnetism in delivery.

Biagi: Even in a one-on-one, or two-on-one interview with your editor there.

Davis: Right. In the first place, he was extremely well spoken, with a wonderful vocabulary, self-taught, and was saying things that nobody had ever said before. The whole business of Eastern religions and the worldliness of people of color, the threads to other civilizations and Egypt and all of that, we never heard of any of this. I mean, I didn't know anything about it. My education was in California, where there was no such thing as black history. We were never mentioned in any sense. At least blacks who grew up in the South had a sense of our history and who they were and where they came from. In California, you never got any of that. None. Nothing. Our history books were so erroneous that it's a wonder that any of us really understand ourselves at all.

Biagi: Are there other people that you covered where being black had an advantage?

Davis: Yes, because there was a lot of activity around race relations, and that was the news of the moment, whether you were in a general market or covering minority for minority press. So if you had connections—don't ask me to say when, but there was a guy named Andy Hatcher, who is black, who became the first assistant press secretary—I guess it had to be under Kennedy—

* Ross Perot, for a period of time, was a potential candidate in the presidential election of 1992.

Page 42

Page 43

who had been editor of the Sun Reporter. So we're now getting these jobs that had been unheard of. I knew Andy Hatcher and I knew people far up in the government. Because it has been a closed and separate community, if you were black, you tended to know your community so well all the way up the line because as the black press, that's who they talked to.

So I knew and had access to Martin [Luther] King [Jr.]. When I was in KDIA, this is where he came to address "the people." The man who had been his best man at his wedding was one of our salesmen at our station, so he was a regular in our station.

Biagi: Who was the best man?

Davis: Frank Clark.

Biagi: So he had that connection, so he would come to your station, but also because it was his audience. Was there ever a time when those stories came to town and people came to town that were relevant and you would argue to cover them, and the news director would say, "That isn't news"?

Davis: No. Lou Simon did something right after I came, in a staff meeting. They welcomed me and then said things like, "We know you know your own community and we know you know what news is there, but now you have to realize that you're here to cover all the people. I want you to move out and have people in all the communities get to know you and know your skills as well as people do in your own community." I think that was his way of saying he didn't want me pigeonholed.

So, of course, I took that and ran with it, and tried to make sure that I got access in covering all kinds of news. So my whole thing was not to be pigeonholed into just covering issues in and around race relations, and I was adamant about that. In fact, I had very strong feelings that my white colleagues needed to know the black community. They needed to learn and they needed to be there at events that revolved around race more than I did. I understood it. They needed to understand it. When they understood it, they could maybe explain it to the viewers better, because they would be in the learning process along with them. So I made those little speeches.

Of course, we had very little race trouble in San Francisco, but let me tell you, when we did have our little mini-riot, there I was immediately on a Sunday in Hunter's Point for that. My husband had done a few freelance still jobs for AP, but, boy, were they on the phone to him that day. [Laughter.] In fact, his picture was front page in the Examiner the next day after the Hunter's Point riot.

Biagi: Why was that?

Davis: Because they needed black faces to get in there. They had learned from Watts that they needed black faces when there was trouble or their reporters got into lots of problems. So Bill did the front page picture.

Biagi: Did you ever feel at risk in those situations? Were you ever scared?

Davis: Actually, no. I was in far more danger on UC Berkeley's campus. But even so, I think if you're going to do a job like this, it was almost as though when you get up and you're on the clock, you put on a special armor and from there on in, the invincibility, the shield is around you.

Page 43

Page 44

At least that's the way I operated. I just never gave deep personal thoughts to that. Because, I think, consciously or unconsciously, I always felt I was on trial for courage, I never let it get in my eye. I didn't. I never felt afraid. I've been tear-gassed many times by the time I got to covering Berkeley every day and San Francisco State.

I guess if I were ever afraid, my biggest fear always was of the police. Especially when I was dealing with the Alameda County Sheriff's Department, I was always afraid.

Biagi: Why?

Davis: Because they were so vicious. They were really, really vicious. One of my friends who was working for Newsweek or Time, Ed Caldwell, was just beaten to a pulp by the police at Berkeley.

Biagi: During a riot?

Davis: Yes, during a demonstration. But the worst part was that after they beat him, they dragged him by his feet down a flight of stairs, where he hit his head on these concrete steps so many times. I'll never, never forget that as long as I live. Never forget that.

Some of the officers in particular, because I was this short, little black person, I remember one day just really tried to humiliate me. With our press passes, we were supposed to be able to go in and out of police lines, and I remember I was right out by Sather Gate [University of California at Berkeley] one day, I started to try to go through the police line, and my colleagues had been going in and out. I was down at the end of this line, a whole line of "blue meanies," as we used to call them, and somebody thought it was a great idea to just fool around with me. There must have been fifteen cops, and they just took me by my shoulders and just spun me all the way down the whole line of cops to the end. At that point, you were really angry and feeling really bad, but you've got to be professional. It must be like a drowning person, thinking, "What do I do when this is over?"

Biagi: What did you do?

Davis: The last guy, I just stopped and I knew I had to stand still for a minute and not move, because any move I made could have been the wrong move, because my inclination was to slap him, and I knew that striking an officer, I'd be really done for. I just stopped, and the kids started yelling and screaming, so I didn't have to do anything. But I was glad I took that moment. It's like everything stopped when they started this. People couldn't believe what was happening. You know how the breath goes in and it comes out, and then the kids started yelling and screaming and throwing things at them, so I didn't have to do anything. But it was so bad that I actually got a letter of apology from Sheriff Madigan.

Biagi: Do you think you were singled out because of race?

Davis: God, yes.

Biagi: Because you were small?

Davis: All of those things.

Biagi: You were a woman.

Page 44

Page 45

Davis: Yes. They wouldn't touch one of those guys. Sure, it was, again, fun and games. I was the end of the joke on many occasions.

Biagi: In those situations, was that usually your strategy?

Davis: A cool head was a real thing. I had to not lose control. That was it. If you're out of control, you're lost already. I figured that out from the beginning. I could never win any battle if I was not in control of myself, and I'm not sure why I came to that conclusion and I don't know if it was a way of avoiding trouble, but I know it generally worked in the end. So that was my deal.

Biagi: Was there ever a time when you lost control?

Davis: Very seldom. Basically every now and then in the office, as Ben [Williams] would say, the volcano would erupt, but it had usually taken a lot by then. I know when I lose control, I'm truly out of control, totally out of control.

Biagi: You have a hot anger?

Davis: Oh, God, yes. I might tell you anything at that point. So every now and then in the office I'd go off. I remember on one occasion I got into it with one of the cameramen, I don't know who it was, but it was really a toe to toe. I remember Ben Williams invited the guy out into the alley. [Laughter.]

Biagi: You're kidding! It got that hot?

Davis: It got that hot. I realized then I had to cool this down. Ben's job is going to be on the line here. I always knew, too, that in the real tight moments, I could count on him. Right or wrong, he was going to be there for me, and that's why I used to always say I'm really a lucky person that I landed in the newsroom where I did to have to go through these trials. I knew that the future for other women, how I behaved was going to impact them.

Biagi: You did know that at the time?

Davis: Oh, yes, I knew that. I knew that because of the way they treated me. Part of what they were doing had to do with race, but a lot of it had to do with my gender. So I really took that as a responsibility and tried to do the job as well as I could.

Biagi: Were there stories at that time in KPIX that you did that you are especially proud of, that had a real meaning for you?

Davis: In the beginning, let me tell you, I had a film editor friend, who is still my friend, Richard Scott. We are the ones who got together and did the big anniversary party for the KPIX newsroom last year, which was just a wonderful thing. People came from all over the country for it, because we were such a wonderful family of people in the late sixties and early seventies at KPIX.

Richard Scott used to tell me that people tuned in to the news to see the newsmaker, not to see the reporter. He was teaching me without really knowing how much what he was saying would impact on how I performed in this business, how I performed in this business all of my career. That was that a reporter was a conduit of information, and our job was to bring to the

Page 45

Page 46

public opinion-makers and those who were the newsmakers, and that if I wanted to indulge myself, go get into a room with some of my friends and have fun.

So in my early stories, I very seldom appeared on camera, because whatever time I had, I wanted to give it to the person who had been speaking that day or showing you what had happened that day. My mother used to be so upset by this, because here's her daughter who's now on television and you never saw me, or very seldom saw me. There were a couple of things working there, too. I was not sure I was ready to be on camera. [Laughter.] I'm not sure I was quite ready for prime time.

I'm trying to think of stories. There are so many stories that I did that I'm proud of and was there for them. I think the work that I did in covering Berkeley and the demonstrations and riots, I'm proud of as a collective body of things.

Biagi: Were you there every day?

Davis: Almost. For a period I lived in El Cerrito, so it was easier for me to just drive into Berkeley and meet the cameraman. So we met in Ray Colvig's office there in public information, is where we rendezvoused every day to figure out what the war plan was for the day, who was demonstrating where.

Biagi: Did you feel that the demonstrations were a staged operation? Many people since have said, "We really didn't understand what we were doing. We would wait, demonstrations would begin, and we'd film the demonstrations, and then we gave the impression to the world that this was Berkeley."

Davis: Yes, but I think it's like saying that if you're out here on Clay Street and a car smashes into another, you're not going to pay attention to it because fifteen other cars are going down the street without hitting each other. I've never bought that theory of people saying that this is the whole of anything. It is impossible in news to get the whole of anything. What news is, is the exception, and at that time the demonstrations were the exceptions and they were disruptive to thousands of people's lives. So there's no way you could have ignored that or not covered it or not been there for it. It was happening.

So, no, I don't agree with that. I think there were a lot of angry people. Remember, this is not like two or three-hundred people; these were thousands of kids and other hanger-ons who went through getting their heads cracked open. It isn't as though they got off scot free. Getting their heads cracked open and getting tear-gassed and chased and all of the other stuff that went with it, a lot of people's lives were ruined totally throughout this period. In fact, most of the leadership ended up in complete disarray one way or the other, from Mario Savio on to Bettina Aptheker and all of those early folks. They didn't gain fame or fortune from having done this. Fame, yes, excuse me, but certainly their later lives didn't prove that it was all worth it, so to speak, personally for them. Maybe overall in what they accomplished in bringing some issues to the forefront, yes, but they paid very heavy, heavy personal prices for this.

Biagi: I remember some people who covered demonstrations telling me that before the demonstrations began, the cops and the demonstrators would all be buddies and they'd talk and everything, and then come the appointed time for the demonstration, and the cops would line up in one place and the kids would line up in another and do battle. Was that the situation?

Page 46

Page 47

Davis: Oh, no. Absolutely no. No. There often was an attempt to negotiate, "We want to march from here to there," or, "We want to do this," but certainly not when they'd go in and take over a hall and thousands would fill it. There was nothing friendly about that at all, no. No, I didn't get that feeling. I certainly didn't get it at San Francisco State. They were riding in on horseback with clubs swinging. Do you think that's a nice, friendly agreement? No way. I think people have gotten confused over later, more planned and organized demonstrations that came about once people learned the power of the media and how to use it. But at the beginning, that was not the case. We missed a lot of it. They just happened spontaneously.

I can remember probably the day that I felt—I don't even remember why or what this demonstration was all about, except it was one of the worst days, probably the worst day. I don't even know what year it was. Certainly Lou Calderon could tell you about it. But it was the day that [Governor of California Ronald] Reagan decided to spray the campus with pepper gas. Is this a friendly arrangement here? "You go off and do your job and I do mine"? By now they were—they were tear-gassing us from the sky, and the reporters were down there eating it along with the students.

So when the helicopters were ready to come, people were really angry about the tear gas, number one, and about the pepper gas, number two, but they really by then were angry with the media, as well as with the police.

I remember getting caught on Bancroft [Avenue], and they set Lou's car on fire that day. He was hit by something. He still has double vision from being injured that day. I was with a cameraman named Gerd Rausch, and we were at Telegraph and Bancroft, and we were surrounded by thousands of kids in this car. It was the day Rector was shot. That was that terrible day.

So we're trying now to get across to get back down out of the midst of this stuff, and our car was surrounded. They had already set one car on fire, and they were rocking our car from side to side. Well, one thing about being the token person, the liberal students gave me a little bit more of a break. I could talk to them better than a lot of other reporters. So we didn't know what to do. The cameraman was freaking out here. So I said, "Okay, Gerd, I'm going to open the door. You just keep driving very slowly. I'm going to start talking to them. Just keep going. Eventually I'm going to get out of the car. I'll meet you at this place."

So I started yelling, just screaming obscenities. "What the hell do you guys think you're doing?" We started screaming, and they were screaming, "Fuck the media!" (I'm whispering this.) [Laughter.]

Biagi: But they were yelling.

Davis: They were yelling, and I was screaming, and they were going on about how terrible the media was, what we were doing, and we were part of the establishment. So while I'm fighting with them about why they're burning media cars and so forth, Gerd is inching the car down. They loved the debate of the moment, so now they've got somebody in the media who would be stupid enough to stand there and debate with them. So he inched the car very slowly while I'm fighting and got out of there. Then what broke it up was the cops started the march down the avenue and everybody had to scatter.

So then my big deal then was to find him and the car and get the rest of my story. But we ended up on Haste, which is the street right down from where the shooting had taken place.

Page 47

Page 48

We were facing down these blue guys in uniforms with rifles cocked, and we know by now they're using live ammunition. So that was a tough day. That was one of those days when you just operate on adrenalin. I'm sure I was probably frightened, but you didn't have a lot of choices. So those who say that this was a friendly little arrangement and so forth, they weren't there. [Laughter.]

Biagi: Did you have access to interviewing central figures in the demonstrations personally, or were you just covering them from afar?

Davis: No, I interviewed everybody and anybody.

Biagi: So that means Savio and Aptheker?

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: Who else?

Davis: I wish I could tell you, but my mind has slipped. Why it slipped back to those names, which were the earliest names from the start of the Free Speech Movement, I cannot remember the mid-names, but it, too, will come. They all come back.

Biagi: When you spoke with them, what would you say their major anger was directed at?

Davis: It was so far beyond anything I understood. You've got this high school kid who's not traveled and doesn't know worldly issues, trying to understand. Their whole thing, I think, was focused on the institutional problems in this country. Their whole dialogue centered around institutional inequities and change institutionally, and wanted institutions to change. That's what I'd say was really the bottom line.

Biagi: What sparked it all?

Davis: I wish I knew. I grew up in Berkeley, and what was going on was so foreign. I mean, as a kid I used to play along that little creek that runs through Berkeley. These kids were like foreigners to the students that I knew at Berkeley. So part of that, that was a problem. I had such respect for the university, I used to almost feel like I should tiptoe when I walked around the campus. And here were these wild people screaming and yelling and talking destruction. I just truly didn't understand it, so I tried to understand.

I think the other thing is that the movement and the anger changed and reconfigured so many times from free speech to civil rights, antiwar, to women's rights, all of these movements were being born almost simultaneously and ebbing at different times. So it was a constant change in trying to understand what was going on. Coalitions would form and break up. From interviewing Adam Clayton Powell after his speech at Sproul Plaza, to Stokeley Carmichael, who was there, the people who were worried about the institution of Berkeley opening its doors and so forth, they were all fiery, but they were all talking about different things, to Joan Baez, who talked about peace, to even some of the early environmentalists. All of this is all mixed up in my head because I could never tell where one began and the other ended. It all started and it just kept going.

Biagi: It went on for some time.

Page 48

Page 49

Davis: Oh, yes.

Biagi: You were there quite a bit.

Davis: Yes, and I covered the demonstrations at the Oakland Induction Center by the time they had moved there, getting up at four in the morning to get your position to watch, to see what was going to happen.

Biagi: Isn't that where they brought the buses in?

Davis: Yes. A lot of this happened when the police would start to clear the area, and it was always done with great force. I always wonder what happened to all those people who were beaten, who were hit over the head, whose skulls were cracked. I wonder later in life what became of them, how much permanent injury was sustained and so forth.

Biagi: Did you cover the people's park demonstrations?

Davis: Not a lot of that, but I covered some of it.

Biagi: Some people have felt it was a trivial incident.

Davis: By then drugs were—it had lost the intellectual edge for me. Yes, it was a different kind of a crowd. Or maybe I was just burning out by then. [Laughter.]

Biagi: Could be.

[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]

Biagi: You're in that era now, and you have to remember the times.

Davis: Right. That part of my life was so filled with high moments that I can't put things in context ever. When I think about it, it's a big block. You see Robert Kennedy, and I can tell you a singular story about him, fortunately not about that tragic moment, but one that almost ended up in tragedy for all of us. He had been in the Bay Area. I became fascinated with covering the American Indian struggle, so I had been doing stories about the plight of the American Indians. He, of course, was interested in the American Indian movement. So I don't know who arranged it or why it happened, but he decided as part of his campaign to take a helicopter trip up to Yreka, up to the Yurok Indian reservation. It was way up north, sort of over from the coast.

So they chartered a helicopter, and a whole group of us got on this chopper. It was after a day of campaigning, late in the evening, but we were going to get there before dark. Well, as California weather will go, we were flying up there and the fog comes in so heavy that it's just unbelievable. We lost our way. The Yreka airport closed down.

Biagi: You're in the helicopter?

Davis: In the helicopter, lost, with Robert Kennedy. We were having this wonderful time. I'm sitting next to him all the way up there, so we had a long personal chat, we talked about family and friends and all this stuff. Then we learn that the airport is closed down, something is wrong with one of the instruments, and we are in trouble. Well, in any case, it worked its way out. I don't know whether it was radio communications or what happened, but we ended up finally

Page 49

Page 50

being able to land there very late at night, and we had planned to be there earlier, drive over to the reservation. I don't know what was supposed to happen, but I know I had no luggage, so we must have planned to come back. But it didn't happen.

Biagi: Did you stay overnight?

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: Did you go to the reservation the next day?

Davis: No, the Indians came to the airport.

Biagi: That would have been when?

Davis: This was shortly before his death.

Biagi: That was the last time you saw him.

Davis: The last time I saw him. I'd covered him other times when he'd been in the valley with César Chavez* or in town. He, of course, didn't know me from Adam.

Biagi: What about other people of the period? Did Martin Luther King show up in town quite a bit?

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: Had you done quite a few interviews with him?

Davis: Oh, yes, lots of interviews with him. My most memorable day of covering him was one of the funny stories. He was by now aware that the movement had to move from civil rights into the peace movement, that there had to be some connection with the whole problem of Vietnam. Joan Baez had been a firm supporter of him because of his non-violent stand, and she had been arrested. I'd covered the demonstration where she'd been arrested in Oakland and had been sentenced to the Alameda County Santa Rita jail, and she was in there serving whatever sentence they decided on at the time.

So on the day of her release, he had decided to come and wait for her and greet her, because he said when he'd been jailed in Alabama or Mississippi, wherever, she had been there, so he wanted to be there for her. The Alameda County Sheriff's Department had a terrible reputation in those days. It was pretty bad. So they just decided, because they knew that this media crowd and King were there, she was the last person of the day that they let go. She was supposed to be released like at eight o'clock in the morning; it was near dark before they let her out. It was a rainy day and it was very cold and very dreary, and he stayed all day.

Every time there was a group coming through the gate—we were still shooting with film cameras, these big huge Pro 400s, I think they were called. We had the worst. Channel 5 [KPIX] was the number-one station, biggest, ran nineteen ratings in the news, and had the worst equipment and cars in the business. That was the way it was. So we'd grab this huge, heavy camera and run over to the gate, because they wouldn't let us stay there permanently, ran up to the gate to see if she was being released, and I chatted with him there all day, off and on, just because I had known him through Frank Clark. It was just such a memorable day. Joan Baez

* César Estrado Chavez (1927-1993), labor organizer and founder of the NationalFarm Workers Association (NFWA), 1965.

Page 50

Page 51 wrote a book and wrote about this day. We became very good friends during that time. She wrote about it from her standpoint and, of course, I knew what had happened outside the gate that day. So it was great. We enjoyed talking about it.

Biagi: If you had to give a number to how many times you covered King, how many times?

Davis: I couldn't even tell you, because I was covering him before the white press. I covered him as a black journalist at KDIA Radio. That's where I first started to try and learn the news business from a man named Lou Freeman, who ran our small news department. I wanted to be his field reporter, so I'd get my little tape recorder and go out and do things and gather actualities. It wasn't part of what I was doing. After all, I'm already the traffic manager, doing continuity* in addition to that and running my own show, but I wanted to learn news, so Lou would let me go and do these things.

Along with that, I got a lesson in news judgment from him, how to make decisions in news. So I would go out to the Church of God in Christ, which at that time was one of the biggest churches physically, where crowds could gather when Martin would come to town to speak. Sometimes they'd have rallies at the Oakland Auditorium. These are major events in the black community, but they were not major events for the major media. So I started covering him from that point of view.

Biagi: That would have been in the early sixties?

Davis: Yes, before TV, even. So I can't even tell you. Many, many, many times. Many times.

Biagi: What were your impressions of King then?

Davis: He was a man with terrific charisma, a deep sense of understanding human nature, and an ability to really move you just in a regular conversation, almost thoughtlessly throwing lines. You'd go, "Oh, did you hear what he said?" [Laughter.] I wish I could explain the dynamics of talking to somebody like King. There was a fire that came from Malcolm X, a good sense of logic that came from him, that engaged you intellectually and oftentimes spirited you. There was a quality that came from a conversation with King that felt nurturing, giving you more of a sense—he touched your humanity. He really had a way of doing that. So both were very powerful. They were powerful in different ways.

Biagi: Other than the incident in Yreka and incidents and times that you spent with Kennedy and King, were there other incidents with those two people that are memorable?

Davis: As a journalist, I was part of the whole crowd, but I was always impressed with [Robert] Kennedy's ability to be at ease on those marches with César Chavez, when he'd come down to those hot valley meetings and they'd set off marching here or there. I would often look at him and think, "Here's this guy from this background with these bearings, this wealth. What happened to bring him to this philosophy?" I think about that sometimes as to why. I try to make some judgment oftentimes as to how much of this is for politics, how much is sincere, and generally would rationalize it that, truly, if you wanted to be a successful white male, there were many other ways to do it. [Laughter.] I just decided that obviously this was something that had to come

* Continuity is the timekeeping department of a broadcast station, which makes sure that all the advertisements run when they are scheduled.

Page 51

Page 52

from some sense of belief of fairness that he had somehow gotten along the way as he'd grown up. But I used to think about that. "Why is this guy down here in this dirt, in this heat, tramping around here, with all of his millions back home? Would I be doing this?" [Laughter.]

With King, you realize what a comfortable life a good Baptist minister could live. I used to always wonder where he got his inspiration. I looked into that and finally found a person who had been his mentor, became an avid fan of that particular person, and later on in life became chair of a small educational trust headed by Dr. Howard Thurman, who had been Martin King's inspiration and mentor. I wanted to know. I've always wanted to know what happened to get you here. [Laughter.] Oh, dear. So I did a little research on that. More than a little. Some of it came out of interviews, trying to understand that.

Biagi: To take a little side road here for a minute, you said you love to read, that you're a real reader. Are there particular books that you really enjoy and that have really been central?

Davis: I don't know if I'd say books, but I'd say when I'm troubled and trying to center my own life, I'll read Howard Thurman. I sure do. He's a universalist, you know. The very first church founded as an interracial church in this country was founded by him and a rabbi and another Protestant minister. They founded a church called the Church for the Fellowship of All People. He was a disciple of [Mohandas K.] Gandhi and believed in nonviolence, believed in a universal humanness. I think that speaks more to my own personal view of life in the world. In fact, on my wall in the office, a friend of mine who is a wonderful calligrapher, a woman who is an eye doctor and surgeon, is also a Thurmanite, and she calligraphied my favorite little passage from Thurman, so it's on the wall in my office. Sometimes I can just walk in there and see it big.

Biagi: And it says? Do you remember it by heart?

Davis: I don't. That's why I have it on the wall so I can read it. It starts with how good it is to center down, and it brings you to centering within yourself. So that's the beginning line. I guess I just pick up something of Thurman's and start to read it. He wrote nineteen books, and there are numerous tapes and other things. He was the dean of chapel at Boston University for many years, had been the dean of the chapel at Howard and Morehouse, a very, very well-respected theologian, named Man of the Year by Life magazine at one time, which was unheard of back in those days for a black man.

But in terms of other readings, because I eventually started to anchor the noon news—the way you get famous people was when they wrote a book—so I can tell you I must have read parts of hundreds of books. Oh, dear, parts of hundreds of books. I was always reading, but I could very seldom finish anything.

Biagi: The night before.

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: As we move into the late sixties, early seventies, you're still at KPIX. How long were you there?

Davis: I was there for eleven years. I actually didn't go on the air till '67, and I worked there full time. Actually, my face didn't appear on the air until '67, and I worked there until almost the end of '77. Then I went over to KQED, but continued to work twenty hours a week for KPIX—doing a program called "All Together Now."

Page 52

Page 53

Biagi: In that period of time after 1970, what's going on in San Francisco?

Davis: I became very involved with the coverage of the Black Panther party. Those were my exclusive signature interviews, too, because I had grown up in West Oakland, where these guys came from. I knew Huey Newton before he was Huey Newton, head of the Black Panther party. The woman he had been engaged to was one of my little Miss Bronze gals. So at various times in their brushes and so on with authorities, I did extensive interviews with them.

One of my great little stories, I've never gotten to the bottom of it, but I can remember Bill and I went on one of our much treasured vacations to the Virgin Islands. I really used to work very, very hard, so we were really looking forward to this. We were on the island of St. Croix, and I get a call from the station to tell me that at this particular time Eldridge Cleaver, who was in Europe, in Paris, or somewhere, Algiers or someplace, wanted to come home, and Kathleen Cleaver was looking for me because if he came, he would only come home if I would agree to come and do an interview so that he could get his side of the story out, and that was going to be part of their negotiated deal for his reentry, and would I come home from my vacation to do this interview. Well, needless to say, that was one of those real numbers for us, but we decided to do it.

Biagi: You did?

Davis: I did the interview from the Alameda County Jail, the one and only interview that they allowed, and it was distributed all over the country.

Then a few years later, Huey Newton was in Cuba, so when I went to Cuba, that was just when [President Jimmy] Carter was having this flirtation with normalizing relations with Cuba, Ron Dellums decided to lead a congressional delegation to Cuba, and it was a delegation of all black officials.

Anyway, this group of black people went to Cuba, and when I get to Cuba, who is the first person that I see when I get out of the car coming from the airport? There's Huey Newton waiting on the steps for me. [Laughter.] Oh, dear. So I did my Huey Newton interview in Cuba talking about the conditions under which he wanted to return to the country. They were worked out and he eventually came back. That was a very exciting trip to Cuba.

Biagi: Your coverage of the Black Panthers, was there ever a time where you felt torn or you had loyalties, personal or otherwise, to these people because they had come from your neighborhood, they were people you knew?

Davis: I tried so hard, ridiculously so, to be evenhanded as a journalist, that I tried to look at it always trying to see all sides of everything, and nobody can see all sides of everything. I tried very hard to. I was never accused of being biased in my reporting. Thank God for that. I really wasn't. I mean, I got letters always telling me to go back to Africa. I used to always wonder which part of that vast continent was I supposed to go to, since I didn't have any idea what my connection would be, and I got lots of hate mail along the way, but I never got letters saying that I had slanted a story, even when it came to dealing with war and peace and the Panthers and so forth. Later on there would develop trouble between us, hard trouble between me and the Oakland Police Department, but not at that time. In fact, I was an acceptable person to come into the jail and do those interviews.

Page 53

Page 54

I remember when Bobby Seale was finally picked up to be sent to Chicago for the Chicago Seven trial. It was a Sunday again, and somehow I was found and brought to the San Francisco Hall of Justice and treated very poorly, incidentally, by the sheriff's deputies at that time, because one of the things he wanted to do before he left was to give an interview before they shipped him off to Chicago. He had really great fear for his life in being sent to Chicago. He was really afraid to go there. I remember they locked me in this holding cell with him for the pre-interview and just went off and left us for the longest time. I was yelling for somebody to come back and they didn't. So finally they brought the cameraman in and we did the interview.

Biagi: Were you scared?

Davis: No, I just knew they were being difficult. They locked me in the cell with him. It wasn't like a visiting room or anything of that sort, just sitting in this holding cell. I'll never forget, because I kept looking at the floor a lot. The walls curved up like this.

Biagi: What about the Marin County shootout and the trial? Did you get involved in that?

Davis: I got involved in the trial coverage eventually, but my story about the shootout ended the Sunday before the shootout. A friend had invited us to a party. We were on this circuit. All of the leftish organizations, you knew who they were and so forth. Somebody had invited us to a party in the Mission District, an antiwar group, and at that party was Angela Davis and Jonathan Jackson. We had spent chatting time with them, just talking about the world, inequities, and things of that sort with this young, quiet kid, Jonathan Jackson. He seemed like the nicest young man. But we had seen them that Sunday, and the next week there was a shootout. I've got to ask Bill. Obviously we left town. I don't think we were here when the shootout happened. But after that, I became very involved because of Angela Davis, because I was Belva Davis, and there was a perception out there. They knew she had a sister, that I was her sister. So I became the object of a lot of hateful mail.

Biagi: As if there aren't a lot of people named Davis.

Davis: I know, but for some reason—

Biagi: You were visible.

Davis: I was visible, to the point that a group in Contra Costa County decided to make threats against me.

Biagi: What do you mean by that?

Davis: During the Patty Hearst trial, there was a plot to kidnap my daughter. That was quite serious, because that one involved the police and the F.B.I., and she had to have special security. That's why we moved out of El Cerrito.

Biagi: When did you move?

Davis: By now she was in junior high school. It was whenever Patty Hearst was kidnapped.

Biagi: That would be early seventies.

Davis: Whenever that was, that was during that time.

Page 54

Page 55

Biagi: You were still at PIX?

Davis: Yes, I was still at PIX.

Biagi: This was before '77.

Davis: Yes, before '77. I remember that Joseph Alioto was mayor, and he had heard about this. Joe Alioto is a fine guy. I remember speaking with him about this. He said that his grandchildren were going to the Convent of the Sacred Heart. There were lots of consulate kids there, and that would probably be a good school to put my daughter. So even though it was late enrollment and all that, we got her into the Convent, and we moved to Larkin Street and Lombard, which was about three blocks from the station, where I could go home and check on her and where she would come to the station after school.

Biagi: What about the Patty Hearst kidnapping? How did you spend your time on that story?

Davis: I was anchoring the noon news, so every single day we were doing live shots from the Hearst house. We did extensive coverage. I remember when Catherine Hearst decided to do her appeal, they called me and I went down and did an interview with Catherine.

Biagi: Her appeal for Patty.

Davis: Yes. Then she did a news conference after that. But that was as much because of my co-anchor, Dave Fowler's relationship with the family as it was my own.

Biagi: Why do you feel now that you became a target or your family became a target from that story?

Davis: Because they said if black people had kidnapped this white girl, they were going to kidnap a black person's kid. So that was it. That was the logic in it.

Biagi: Did you get notes at work?

Davis: I didn't even know about it. I didn't know about it till the police came to me. The police showed up at my house saying that there was a serious matter they needed to talk to me about, that they had uncovered this and had some leads and some evidence that this was going to happen.

Biagi: Were you still at that point the only black person on air?

Davis: No. Being the dean by now, you become a little bit more of a focus. Of course, it was the number-one station, period. I don't know by then whether I was anchoring, because I moved through anchoring all the different shows, not just the noon, but the six o'clock, the eleven, anchoring all at one time or another. So I was probably the most visible black person there at that time.

Biagi: Did you have second thoughts about your business?

Davis: Actually, no. I think it probably just affirmed my belief that I needed to keep doing more. I was concerned definitely about her. In fact, Earl Sanders, he's a friend of mine, a police officer, was really a great guy in explaining to me that people were there. I didn't see them, but they were there, and not to worry.

Page 55

Page 56

Biagi: Let's go back a little bit. We're still at KPIX, you've gotten the Black Panthers covered and Huey Newton and the Marin County shootout, Patty Hearst. Other notable stories that you were doing at the time that you took particular pride in? When you were anchoring, were you reporting and anchoring as well?

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: You would anchor at noon, then go out and report, or vice versa?

Davis: Right. I never stopped reporting. I guess my next big story, I did an interview with a guy and it was my first Emmy, so of course I'll remember that. It was a guy who was at that time California's longest termed prisoner, named Robert Wells. He'd been in jail longer than anybody in the whole prison system and he was at San Quentin, he'd been on Death Row and had been off and so forth. He'd originally gone to jail for receiving stolen property. Red Nelson, the warden, and Bob Wells had become fairly good friends. Nelson liked him. He liked me. So he arranged for me to do some interviews with Bob, and so I went in to San Quentin.

Biagi: What was that experience like?

Davis: Actually, I had been in and out of San Quentin a lot.

Biagi: I hope no one takes that out of context. [Laughter.]

Davis: Right. Wanda Ramey and Dick Corolla, her husband, still are very closely tied to San Quentin and doing work with prisoners there. So they had a very close relationship with the authorities at San Quentin. Through Wanda, I think, I learned about these programs that they did for prisoners, where they brought in outside groups to entertain.

From my radio disc jockey days, I had maintained close friendships with a lot of black entertainers, so I would contact them about doing shows and appearing at San Quentin. Another guy named Sam Skinner, who is a sportswriter today, worked with me at the Sun Reporter, another person who was instrumental. Anyway, a group of us worked to bring shows to San Quentin. I would come with these groups of people to San Quentin, James Brown, I got B.B. King, just a lot of well-known names to come in. So from that way there was another relationship. So I was used to going in and out of that prison for that reason.

[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]

Biagi: Do you want to go on about your years in San Quentin?

Davis: The whole thing about it, I did this interview with Bob Wells and this story got picked up nationally. Bob Wells then became sort of a folk hero of some sort, this guy who went to jail for receiving a suit of stolen clothes forty-seven years later still there.

Biagi: Was that his only—

Davis: Oh, no. He got into trouble in jail and eventually got into a fight with another prisoner. A prisoner was killed in the fight. So he spent a long time on Death Row. But now he's an old guy, and he became a hero. It was always, "Free this person," "Free that person," so he became one of those people to be freed, and the story got picked up by the national media. Eventually Bob Wells was freed. I had been doing stories about Delancy Street, a drug and prison

Page 56

Page 57

rehabilitation program, and it was just starting, so John Maher decided to take on the Bob Wells thing. So Bob was finally let go. I followed that story from that very first interview, which, as I said, won actually two Emmys, to his release.

But the problem was, by now my relationship with Bob had become symbiotic. He'd adopted me. So he lived forty-seven years behind bars and he didn't know anything at all about living outside, so every time he was in trouble, he'd call me and he just became like my ward. He just couldn't manage life on the outside. He didn't live very long. But I always just felt such a responsibility because I was in the midst of helping to get him out. He never really adjusted. I don't think he was ever happy outside of prison. But Warden Nelson thought that he should be freed, and he knew he was going to be retiring, so he gave him all the right recommendations. They finally sent him off to Vacaville and did some evaluations, and the day he was freed, the media was there from all over the world. I mean, he actually became an international person.

Biagi: It all began with your story.

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: You take pride in that.

Davis: Yes. I'd heard about him because of this other association of going to the prison for doing other things.

Biagi: Any other stories?

Davis: I'm trying to at least stay in the same era. What are other stories? Well, my Jane Fonda story. There's a mystery to this story. If I could solve this thing, if I could get somebody to tell me the truth—I'll tell you the story and then I'll tell you the reason why I want to ask her, but I don't know how to ask her about it because then I would be saying, "Were you lying when you did thus and so?" But it starts with the fact that I was the kid who did all the extra hours, so it meant I worked a lot of Sundays and a lot of Saturdays, in addition to my regular work. You didn't get off, as I told you, because of this forty-hour thing.

Jane Fonda had just come out of this terrible marriage to Roger Vadim, and she'd been reading about what was going on in this country and the flower children. Oh, I didn't even talk about covering that. That was my Sunday coverage, the Haight. I forgot all about that. Anyway, she'd heard about it, so she had just had a baby and was coming back to this country and was reading voraciously, trying to find out what was going on in America, trying to get her own bearings as to what to do with the rest of her life. So she ended up, I don't know how or why, but where I came in, it was Sunday, Jane Fonda was in town, she was in a small apartment above somebody's bookstore on Haight, a famous bookstore, but up top there was an apartment.

She was available for an interview, so I went out, and there was this attractive woman sitting in the usual tie-dyed apartment, mattress on the floor, tie-dyed spread over it with this little baby. It was sort of like an encounter session. She wanted to interview me about what all was going on and what did this mean and when was that, and she had question after question. She was just trying to get a firsthand look at what was going on in America. I remember I almost didn't get a story on, because I couldn't get away from her, because she was grilling me so. [Laughter.] I must have spent a couple of hours or more with her.

Page 57

Page 58

Well, the reason for the unbelievable part is some years later, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown had a fundraising thing, a women's luncheon in which he brought leading women from Hollywood, Sherry Lansing and Jane Fonda and many other big names, Maxine Waters, the congresswoman. They were all on this panel. Jane Fonda was there, so I went over to her and I said, "I'm sure you won't remember me, but I met you at a point in your life when you were really trying to make some decisions. I remembered it because of your appetite for information." She said, "I know who you are." She rattled off the circumstances. Well, I still think to this day Willie Brown probably told her this story, but I don't know, because she just looked me straight in the eye and related. She probably remembers the day, but she might not remember who the reporter was. She said she did. She said, oh, no, that it had been a very important day in her life. Then she thanked me.

Biagi: You ought to ask Willie.

Davis: He denies that he told her anything. Anyway, I've always wondered if she really did.

Biagi: We can return to the Haight now.

Davis: That one was really something. That started out as such a sweet movement. I can remember my first day of real consciousness about it was a rally on the steps of city hall, when whoever the group was sang, the first time I heard "If You Come to San Francisco, Be Sure to Wear a Flower in Your Hair." It was just—oh, just really touch, touch, touching. I remember standing there thinking, "Oh, God, you're a reporter here. Get out of this! You're getting into this!" [Laughter.] Because all the things they were saying were so idealistic, about love and brotherhood and fellowship and equality, and you just wished so much that this could be the real world instead of some dream circumstances that they had concocted for this little enclave. Then, of course, soon after that came the blocking of streets in the Haight and the cops in the Haight, and it was the same old Berkeley story.

Biagi: You saw a pattern.

Davis: Yes, it got worse and worse as the weekends would go by.

Biagi: Do you remember any particularly notable incidents or does it all kind of flow together there?

Davis: I guess out of that, David Smith at the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic stands out as being an angel of the time, really an angel of the time, because these kids were fooling around with so many things put into their bodies that they didn't know what to do with. Here was somebody there to address their ills with no questions asked.

Biagi: There was a lot of criticism of that, wasn't there?

Davis: Yes, but he was needed, because these kids were in all kinds of trouble. They didn't know what to do with themselves. They were so sweet when you'd see the ones who were coming into town on those first weekends, you know, really looking for this Utopia, and, of course, it doesn't exist. But it was sort of a sweet time, still, because there was no more sympathetic community they could have gone to. I mean, there had to be certain kinds of chemistry for this to happen. But watching that movement grow there and the music around it and the innocentness in the ingestion of some of these drugs, the circumstances under which it happened. My husband has always been the music person, and he would make me go to Winterland for music concerts.

Page 58

Page 59

I can remember sitting there and being so overwhelmed by the marijuana odors that I'd get sick. You'd be sitting there and marijuana cigarettes were being passed up and down the aisles. It was just freeflowing, passed from person to person. That whole environment, I guess it was seeing it from the beginning and seeing it go through its transitions and then seeing the sadness on the other end.

Biagi: Let's talk about your activism in the union. It comes into play at this point, doesn't it?

Davis: Yes, it does. I didn't know anything about unionism, but then I found out that these guys could really make my life much better, and along with all that, as I told you, I never asked anybody how much money I was going to make.

Biagi: It might be historically interesting if you can remember your salaries at some point in this period.

Davis: I'll tell you, I was making what to me was a lot of money, a lot of money. I was making two-hundred dollars a week.

Biagi: This is at what point?

Davis: This is in 1967, I was making two-hundred dollars a week. I thought I was rich. Because you've got to remember I had just come off of a year where we made no money.

Biagi: Four-thousand dollars together.

Davis: Right. So this was like we had hit the jackpot. Then I found out it was far less than what any of the men were making.

Biagi: How did you find out?

Davis: I only found it out when the program manager came to me and said, "We want to raise your salary voluntarily." Of course, then I realized something was wrong.

Biagi: Did you get paid for weekend work?

Davis: Flat salary. You got two-hundred a week whether you worked eight hours or no hours.

Biagi: When they called you, what was the incentive to go in?

Davis: I don't even think I thought of it as a punishment. If it was a good story, it was a good story. I didn't think about it till it was just used to excess. I think that was the only time. I'm sure I didn't have a lot of time off in January, and then you go through twenty-nine days without a break, you're bound to be tired.

Biagi: So it was the March after that February that you started asking around?

Davis: Actually, I think I said something. I'm sure it was through Bill Hillman. He said did Don Tayer know about this.

Biagi: Don Tayer was?

Page 59

Page 60

Davis: He was the head of the union at that time.

Biagi: Is this AFTRA?

Davis: Yes. Actually, I don't know a lot about what went on in between that. It's like they asked me for my time sheets, I gave them my time sheets, a lot of stuff was going on. I knew I had to join, I had paid my fees, but I had this mixed feeling about the union going in, and I'll tell you why, because when I was in black radio, they wouldn't accept us. We couldn't become members of the white union, because they said that we should be in the technicians union, we should have been in AFTRA if we had been in any union. So we were in no union. The reputation of unions as being biased was very strong. They were actually the gatekeeper to keep—like my husband, they were saying to him, "We'll hire you if you can get the union to go along."

So I didn't think of unions in particular as being friendly. So I don't think I got aboard till I saw that you could make a difference, and I heard from the leadership that they also wanted to see changes. So then I became an active union member. But even within the union itself, it was still trying to shed the last vestiges of racism. Even the constitution had biased language in it. That happened even maybe during my first convention, they were cleaning up language.

Biagi: What happened after they got your time card?

Davis: I don't really know. All I know is that then the bargaining started between the union and the station, and there was an agreement reached that we'd get overtime after forty hours a week, and I was a big hero. [Laughter.] That's all I know. But I was so busy during that period of my life, I really was. Money never has been my big—I don't know how to manage it. I earn probably less than anybody who's worked this many years to be in this market, because I've never had a big salary. When I started to climb up the salary scale was when I resigned at KPIX and took a huge salary—in fact, this is something that's interesting. When I resigned and knew that KPIX was changing and it was time for me to do something else, KQED could not equal my salary.

Biagi: Being a public station.

Davis: Right. I think I was going to have to take a fifteen or twenty-thousand dollar a year salary cut to go over and anchor their news. Here again, and I don't know how it happened, but the big guys got together and we reached an agreement that I would continue—because KPIX wasn't sure. I was hosting their premier minority program called "All Together Now," which is a multi-ethnic show that was very popular, prime time. Bill Osterhaus had been the station manager at KPIX. He by then was the station manager at KQED. He got together with George Reising, a guy who was the station manager at Channel 5, and they agreed that I could continue to host the "All Together Now" prime time show on Channel 5 while working a five-day anchor job at KQED.

Biagi: And that made up the difference in salary?

Davis: That gave me an opportunity to make up the difference in salary, so I did that the entire time I worked at KQED. I worked forty hours a week there and twenty hours a week for KPIX.

Biagi: When did you sleep?

Davis: I realize now why my heart is giving me trouble. [Laughter.] I've been pushing it for a very long time. So that's what I did.

Page 60

Page 61

Biagi: The twenty hours a week, when did you put those twenty hours in?

Davis: Fortunately for me, the KQED show, I came to work at noon, because our news didn't go on the air until 7:30 [p.m.]. So my hours started at noon there, so I'd work in the mornings [for KPIX]. See, by now the "All Together Now" program was done like an "Evening Magazine" show. It was done in the field, all of the bridges, the stand-ups, the location shoots, the interviews, and all that. Entertainment stuff, if we were doing a nightclub scene or something, I'd do that in the evenings afterwards.

Biagi: Your union activism, you became quite visible.

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: You just didn't turn in the time card.

Davis: No, no. After that, what I decided was it was a good way to be an activist within then acceptable realms and still be a good reporter. I could go out and work for equality as a good unionist, so I soon became involved with the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee, which I'm still national chair of within the union, and decided to use the power and resources of the union for the things that I cared about most, and that was trying to get a fair shake for everybody.

Biagi: What did that involve in the early days?

Davis: Actually, it started in trying to win over my own members. A great deal of it was working within the membership, the structure of the union itself. They were a near lily white union. There were no high-ranking officials that were minority. In fact, when we would have our EEO meetings at the national convention, they wouldn't even give us a room to meet in. We'd have to meet in the restaurant, in the cafe, or around the pool, or at lunchtime.

Biagi: And you could, there were so few of you.

Davis: That's right. We were fortunate enough to get to be delegates to the convention.

Biagi: In the early days when you had your meetings, how many people were there?

Davis: No more than ten, and that is if we counted some people who were office staff.

Biagi: That's in a union of how big?

Davis: About 45,000 people. So we would have our meetings and we'd come up with our agenda items and our list of demands and changes and so forth, and try to fashion resolutions and get them passed within the union itself. We dealt with staffing and having the union make strong statements about diversity.

Biagi: Did you ever get involved in lobbying in Washington?

Davis: Yes, that came much later. That came real late in my career. By the time I was comfortable enough to feel that based on how people had responded to me from up and down the political spectrum, that I was viewed as a person that tried to be fair and tried to be even-handed in my reporting, I felt that my reputation was strong enough there that if anybody was going to

Page 61

Page 62

take the risk, and also because I was the longest termed person, if anybody's going to take the risk, then it ought to be me. So, yes.

Then we started from this committee to organizing annual conferences, and eventually those conferences led to a meeting in Washington. As part of those conferences, we invited FCC commissioners to come and address us, as well as industry leaders and government people. Then as changes began to take place within the commission and the Congress was considering means that would even open the door more and make it easier for the companies to not hire and to not keep statistics on how many—

Biagi: Deregulation.

Davis: Deregulation came about. Our big problem with the Congress had been this whole business of keeping statistics. It's something employers had been trying to get out of for years. So that was the year, the year when the FCC and the Congress were considering dropping the requirement that employers keep logs on the make-up of their stations and records of how they were serving the communities, even though now their license didn't depend upon it the way it had in the earlier days.

Biagi: This was in the eighties?

Davis: Yes. We just felt that there would be no way to win the battle if there was no record, so that was what pushed me to the wall, and that's when we did our first lobby trip and really went to Capitol Hill. I called Don Edwards, local congressman who has a long history on civil rights, and asked for instructions on how I could go about doing this.

The amazing thing was that the union itself had no lobbyist. They were represented through the Department of Professional Employees, which covers all professional employees, all different kinds of unions, and one guy there who is speaking for all these different groups. So they had no lobbyist who spoke at all on broadcast issues alone.

Biagi: "They" meaning broadcast employees.

Davis: Yes. So there was no one speaking for us. My union management sort of went along. They were certainly not out in front of this, because they were afraid of the Washington bureau network guys who just thought this was awful. My feeling was, "You can stay at home if you want to, but we're going. And basically that's what we did, so we did these conferences that really were forerunners of where they're finding themselves today, where we really started to try to understand how the industry operated and how to have some impact on it.

I must say that people at the FCC [Federal Communications Commission]—in fact, it's really funny, because a lot of this I'd have never been able to do without help from the National Association of Broadcast Minority Department. There's a guy that runs a Minority Department there who knew the Washington system inside out, and his department was always publishing papers on the status of minorities in broadcasting.

Biagi: He probably wanted the statistics, too.

Davis: Of course, yes. So I'd get a lot of my information from stuff that Dwight was mailing out about what was going on in the industry, and it was really my guidepost, because I didn't know where to start with all of this stuff.

Page 62

Page 63

Biagi: And they're still keeping statistics.

Davis: Yes. So what I did was to find our union members who came from the districts of the congresspeople we needed to talk to, and had them make the appointments with those people, and then we came around with our little road show. By the time we were doing this for the third time, the union leadership was pushing us out of the way to be the ones to do it, because they had other issues by then that they were concerned about.

So we were making the appointments and we were the forerunners. It was a minority convention and it turned into something totally different. That was part of what we did.

Biagi: Other changes you think you had an effect on within the union?

Davis: I was involved in this. No one does anything single-handedly. As I told you about how the EEO Committee [of AFTRA] was an outside committee, then I became very active with the women's committee and decided that the women and minorities had to join together, because we were both outside. So I was very active in being a bridge. Then as minorities began to separate their issues from women's issues, that was a pretty tense period. We decided on the strange kind of a configuration where I became sort of an overall chair of a many-armed committee of minorities, the women, the seniors, and the disabled. I sort of tried to coordinate all of this.

Biagi: Did you have a title?

Davis: I think I was just called the national EEO chair. Then there were chairs of these various groups. Certainly when it came to the Washington lobbying situation, we tried to bring all that together into one effort.

Biagi: What were the other issues that you took up with the same fervor?

Davis: I guess the last time we were in Washington, we were more into women's issues by then. I'm not sure why, because I remember one of our first calls was to Pat Schroeder. I know we went back and talked about the [Americans With] Disabilities Act, because actors, in particular, who are disabled really have a complaint. At that time, if there was ever a role for a disabled person, it never went to a disabled person; it went to somebody else who went to a disabled person to learn how to act disabled. I think we flowed with the times. If the big agenda issue was the Disabilities Act, we did a lot of talking about that. I remember the year the Civil Rights Act expired and they had to vote it in again, we were very active that year on the Civil Rights Act and talked about what it meant.

Biagi: Did you visit members of Congress?

Davis: We held a major news conference that was covered by sixteen cameras.

Biagi: You were counting. [Laughter.]

Davis: Yes. We were told about that. But we did hold a major news conference on that, that got national coverage. Nobody in management ever said I couldn't do it. I always said to the news director and manager, "I'm going to do this."

Biagi: Have you ever felt that your activism affected your professional career?

Page 63

Page 64

Davis: I never thought of it that way, but I don't think so.

Biagi: It hasn't put you in jeopardy?

Davis: I don't think so.

Biagi: I know union activism in some professions can do that.

Davis: The beginning of the story, when I was talking about getting hired at [Channel] 4 [KRON-TV] I think that took the edge off that fear for me, because I thought if ever you're going to pay a price, if you're president of a union that's just struck somebody and you picket up and down in front of the station for days, then they turn around a few months later and hire you, you tend not to think of it as having been that big a liability. [Laughter.] I'm not saying that it isn't in some places, but I've never felt it directly impacted my work.

Biagi: We'll stop now.

Davis: Okay.

Page 64

Go to Session One | Session Three | Session Four | Session Five
Index | Cover | Home

© 1993, Washington Press Club Foundation.
Washington, DC. All Rights Reserved.