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A Voice for Those Without

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Alice McGrath’s life story would make an amazing film. In fact, part of her life has already made it to film. Her involvement in the racially charged Sleepy Lagoon Trial of the 1940s was captured in the film Zoot Suit, released in 1995. But that’s a small part of what she has accomplished. 

Alice McGrath

Alice McGrath

McGrath, now 86, has helped overturn murder convictions, developed a pro bono program for the Ventura County Bar Association, served as a client advocate, written books on self defense for women, and led dozens of tours to Nicaragua. Studs Turkel profiled her in his book Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century By Those Who’ve Lived It.

McGrath is also a philanthropist, supporting the UW’s Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies through two recent gifts: a $10,000 outright gift and a $100,000 planned gift. McGrath explains that these gifts are one more way to support the issues that have been central to her life: social justice and the need for all Americans to have a voice.

“As long as I can remember—long before I could articulate it—I had a sense of things that were fair and things that were not,” recalls McGrath. “As I grew older, I was moved and disturbed by bigger social justice issues, especially racism.”

It was during a brief stint at Los Angeles Community College that she began to turn her beliefs into action. “It was the first time I met people of color,” she recalls. She befriended several of them, and helped bring audiences to the New Negro Theater where they worked. At one point, after much coaxing, they convinced her to perform in a reading of Langston Hughes’ poetry—with the poet sitting in the audience. “I did it, but badly,” McGrath recalls. “Afterward I apologized to Langston Hughes and we laughed about it.”

McGrath never finished community college— her family could not afford the streetcar fare or the textbooks—and went on to a series of menial jobs, including one at a candy factory where she earned 25 cents an hour. (“The candy was trashy, and I ate it until I was sick,” she recalls.) 

It was during that period that a friend told her about the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). “Everything I was concerned with was right there at the CIO,” McGrath recalls. “The organization was interested not only in wages but also in social issues that go along with wages. I felt at home there.” McGrath began volunteering and looked forward to a paying job there in the future.

Her plans were dashed when she was diagnosed with pleurisy and sent off to a hospital to recover. During that period the Sleepy Lagoon Case began, with 22 young men, mostly Mexican Americans, tried en masse before an openly hostile judge and jury for conspiracy to commit murder. McGrath knew the lawyer for the defendants, George Shibley; while she was recovering he brought her the daily transcript of the trial and asked her to prepare a summary. 

The Sleepy Lagoon defendants in San Quentin Prison. The inscription reads, "To Alice, with love from her boys."

The Sleepy Lagoon defendants in San Quentin Prison. The inscription reads, "To Alice, with love from her boys."

“Soon I was well enough to attend the trial,” says McGrath. “I was appalled by the attitude of the judge and jury. It was clear that they just despised the defendants.”

Twelve of the defendants were sent to San Quentin prison in 1942. After the trial, the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee was formed to publicize the case and raise money for a legal appeal. McGrath volunteered for the committee, starting a newsletter for the men in prison and visiting them regularly. After several months, the committee’s national chairman, Cary McWilliams, asked her to be executive secretary. 

“I was very timid but very committed,” she recalls. “I told him, ‘I’ve never done anything like that before.’ And he said the four words that changed my life: ‘And now you will.’”

McGrath, who knew “zero about managing an office,” learned on the job. She also gained confidence as a public speaker. “I started out very nervous, with trembling hands,” she says. “But I kept doing it, and a year later I spoke to 1,000 longshoremen in San Francisco. I was passionate and articulate and they gave us $1,000.”

That’s when McGrath met legendary labor leader Harry Bridges, whom she and others joined for drinks. “To me, that was huge,” says McGrath. “Meeting Harry Bridges was a highlight of my young life.”

In 1944, thanks to the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, the case went to appeal. The court unanimously overturned the convictions and freed the 12 defendants. 

The case was brought to light again in 1978 when Luis Valdez’s play Zoot Suit—later made into a film—opened. In Zoot Suit, a drama based on the Sleepy Lagoon trial, Alice figures prominently in the story. “The Alice character in Zoot Suit has some elements that are the real Alice and some that are created,” says McGrath, “but Luis Valdez really gets the flavor of the time.”

So what does a social activist do after helping overturn 12 murder convictions? McGrath took on smaller projects, including organizing an 83rd birthday party for renowned African American intellectual and writer W.E.B. DuBois, who became a “lifelong friend.” She also served as a publisher’s sales representative, a retail clerk, a figure model, and a teacher of self defense for girls and women.

In her mid-60s, when most people begin slowing down, McGrath discovered another passion: Nicaragua. She took her first trip there in 1984 “out of curiosity” and fell in love with the country.

“I was so excited to be there that I wanted to bring more people down with me,” she recalls. She began taking friends, then led political tours, and finally arranged tours for groups of academics. She has made 86 trips to Nicaragua in the past 20 years, and is departing for her 87th trip this month to visit friends.

McGrath also has been stirring things up closer to home. Several years after moving to Ventura, California, she discovered that the city’s bar association had no pro bono program. “Every county is supposed to have one, so I offered to start one,” she says. “For two years I was almost full-time as a volunteer for them.”

Once that program was established, McGrath began working with attorneys and court personnel as a client advocate, working “to make the process of court less painful for poor people.” Like nearly all her previous endeavors, the focus was on helping those without a voice. 

Her recent gifts to the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies have a similar inspiration.

“I admired Harry Bridges more than any other labor leader,” says McGrath. “He was faithful to his death and represented the very best of the U.S. labor movement, which has provided a much needed voice for working people.

“I feel very lucky to have been able to make a generous contribution. And it’s not just a contribution, it’s an investment. With the charitable gift annuity, I get money while I’m alive and the Labor Studies benefits when I die. I feel just great about it.”