Monday, April 28, 2008

Immigrant of the Day: Alice McGrath (Canada)

Licemcgrath Alice McGrath (1917-) was born to Russian immigrants in Calgary, Canada. Her family moved to Los Angeles in 1922. McGrath volunteered for the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the late 1930s and met a well-known labor lawyer, George Shibley. He remembered her when in 1942 he became associated with the famous Sleepy Lagoon murder case, in which  a group of predominantly Mexican-American youths were accused and tried for murder in Los Angeles.

In January 1943, after a 13-week trial, 17 boys were convicted and 12 were sentenced to San Quentin. At the time of the trial, labor activist LaRue McCormick had formed the Citizens' Committee for the Defense of Mexican American Youth. Among the committee members was Carey McWilliams, who eventually became the national chairman when the group reorganized as the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee (SLDC). The Committee's goals were to publicize the case and to fund a legal appeal for the boys in prison. The Committee quickly grew as people from the film industry, educational fields, Congress, and labor unions joined its ranks. In addition, the SLDC had significant support from African Americans. Numerous fundraisers were hosted and attended by celebrities including Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Nat King Cole, and Anthony Quinn.

Alice McGrath became the executive secretary of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee. She visited "her boys" every six weeks at San Quentin and would tell them about the Committee's progress, distribute its news bulletin, and tried to boost their morale. With many of them, she forged lasting friendships with the group, including Hank Leyvas, the group's perceived "ringleader."

In 1944, in People v. Zammora, 66 Cal.App. 2d 166, 152 P.2d 180 (1944), the court of appeals overturned the convictions, citing insufficient evidence, the denial of the defendants' right to counsel, and the bias of the trial judge. McGrath was the first to notify the defendants of the appeal's success.

For over 55 years, McGrath remained involved in a number of social, legal, and economic justice activities. And through all those decades, she remained a friend of the Leyvas family.

Professor Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval (UCSB) is writing a fascinating biographical article about Alice McGrath, focusing on her involvement in the Sleepy Lagoon murder case.

Alice McGrath's role in the Sleepy Lagoon case was captured in the film Zoot Suit, released in 1995. For more about McGrath, click here. For an interview with her about the case, click here.


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