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Lomax Family: From L.A. to South of '60s

July 11, 1985|GARY LIBMAN

Melanie Lomax can't forget her first contact with the South.

The first vice president of the Los Angeles branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People was 10 and living in middle-class Los Angeles when her mother packed Melanie and five brothers and sisters into a big, robin's-egg-blue Lincoln.

It was 1961, and Almena Lomax, who had just divorced her husband and closed down the Los Angeles Tribune, a black newspaper the family published, drove toward Tuskegee, Ala., to work in the emerging civil rights movement.

Now 35, Melanie Lomax recently led the NAACP's "fair-share" campaign, which extracted pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars in minority community investments from McDonald's restaurants and the Adolph Coors Co., and announced a similar campaign against six major record companies that has caused some controversy.

Shock of Segregation

She sat on a couch in her hillside Pasadena home and recalled her shock at the segregation her family encountered as it entered Texas on that long-ago trip.

"There were colored restaurants and there were white ones," she said. "There were colored restrooms and there were white ones. And there were water fountains that were labeled the same way. I was just totally astounded."

She was even more surprised when her mother entered the white side of a segregated Texas diner.

"My mother, being the kind of woman she is, addressed the world from this principled perspective . . . ," Lomax recalled. "You know what's right and what isn't right. So she would not let us go to the colored part of this restaurant.

"This was totally ridiculous for a black woman and six children to go without even male protection. And we had, from the standpoint of a minor child, one of the most horrifying experiences in terms of enormous hostility.

"We walked in. They refused to seat us. My mother launched into one of her (speeches). . . . It was very articulate, very strong and direct . . . and she started telling the manager about the wrongness of this, and how outrageous it was, and that she was going to stand on her principles. . . .

"The colored help came out from the kitchen and they cracked the door, not as if we were liberating them, but with the greatest hostility, like what are you Northern Negroes, middle-class people, doing coming down here on this integration trip. You're just going to make things worse.

"The manager insisted we leave. He would not give us a table. The stalemate went on indefinitely. . . . One of these fat old rednecks drove up in a sheriff's car."

The party included Melanie's brother Michael, now 37, chairman of the Fulton County (Ga.) Board of Commissioners and reportedly the most powerful politician in Atlanta behind Mayor Andrew Young.

Also along were Michele, now 40, a writer; Mia, 32, a dancer; Mark, 30, an executive administrative assistant in the Los Angeles municipal court, and Lucius IV, 29, a writer and reporter.

"During this whole thing we began to lobby my mother," Melanie Lomax said. "We just wanted to get something to eat. I mean, I really was not interested in any monumental hassles."

Eventually Almena Lomax and her children left without being served.

Started a Newspaper

After reaching Tuskegee, Almena Lomax started a newspaper that attacked segregated schools and advocated black voting in an area traditionally opposed to it.

She helped plan the freedom rides, and she and her children integrated restaurants and met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy.

And Almena Lomax continued to speak her mind. During secret meetings with the shades drawn at Abernathy's Montgomery, Ala., home, she was kicked out of sessions to plan the freedom rides when she disagreed with the planners' nonviolent tactics.

"I wouldn't ride a bus. Abernathy was disgusted," Almena Lomax remembered. "I said I will not go to jail for asking what is my due. I said I am not a pacifist. Anybody who hits me gets hit back.

"I said what have we been doing for 200 years but taking that crap?

'Winning Converts'

"They wouldn't even let me do typing after a while. . . . That was very painful. . . . (But) I would not be quiet. And I was winning converts."

Almena Lomax, petite and 5 feet, 4 inches tall, took the position that self-defense would prevent further violence. She said that in Montgomery, she watched whites chase early freedom riders and corner them in an alley.

"There was this great big guy--he wasn't really big, but he was fat with a belly flowing over his belt. He was the leader. He was hesitant. Until the freedom riders took a step back. Then it became a mob. I wrote that a mob only becomes a mob when it has a victim."

She also helped a young reporter. Peter Jennings, now anchor for "ABC World News Tonight," had just been hired by the network from Ottawa, Canada, when he arrived in Tuskegee in 1964 to cover the South.

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