Kamala Harris and the Rainbow Sign
Kamala Harris: My favorite night of the week was Thursday. On Thursdays you could always find us in an unassuming beige building on the corner of what was then Grove Street and Derby. Once a mortuary...
Trymaine Lee: For six years in the early 1970s, that beige building in the Brooklyn, California, was the center of the universe, or at least the section of it occupied by a constellation of Black luminaries like Maya Angelou and James Baldwin, and a little Black and Indian girl would one day become a star of American politics.
Back then, that little building was home the the Rainbow Sign, a cultural center that sat at the intersection of the Black Arts and Black Power Movements. It was a social club, a concert space, the kind of joint where you could find the first Black mayor of Berkeley rubbing shoulders with Black Panthers over a plate of fried chicken and collard greens while listening to Nina Simone pour her heart out. It was that kind of Black.
Archival Recording: Rainbow Sign is a unique club in Berkeley, which is geared to the role of the Black in American cultural society.
Lee: A who's who of art, culture, and activism found their way to the Rainbow Sign, as one tumultuous decade in America was ending and another just beginning.
Archival Recording: Is Black art really any different than any other kind of art?
E.j. Montgomery: Yes. Because it relates directly to the Black experience, whatever it is here in America, or anywhere else in the world.
Lee: Here's Rainbow Sign art consultant, E.J. Montgomery talking to a reporter from a local CBS TV station in 1972.
Montgomery: But as a Black person in the world today, they have their own unique experiences. And that, we feel, they are trying to relate in their art in some way.
Lee: The Rainbow Sign was the vision of Mary Ann Pollar, a legendary Bay Area concert promoter who founded the place with a group of other Black women. They wanted to create a space where Black people and allies in the fight for freedom could see a true reflection of themselves, unencumbered by the white gaze. But of all the people touched by the Rainbow Sign, it might be that little Black and Indian girl whose light now shines brightest. Her name is Kamala Harris. Here she is, reading from her 2019 memoir, The Truth We Hold.
Harris: My mother, Maya, and I went to the Rainbow Sign often. Everyone in the neighborhood knew us as Shyamala and the girls. We were a unit, a team, and when we'd show up at the Rainbow Sign, we were always greeted with big smiles and warm hugs.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. And today, we're going into the little known history of the Rainbow Sign and how it shaped a generation of Black creatives, activists, and politicians, including Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. So let's start in Berkeley, California, in the late 1960s.
Dezie Woods-jones: It was just a time and a place to be, which spurred on our passion for making change.
Lee: Dezie Woods-Jones moved to the Bay Area with her family when she was just six months old. Today, she's 79, and she's had a long history in civil rights work.
Woods-jones: Did some of my traveling work in the Civil Rights Movements. Put in some time in Atlanta, Georgia, and Tuskegee, Alabama, and all of those places, working with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
Lee: Dezie eventually returned to keep fighting the good fight, and in 1968 she founded an organization called Black Women Organized for Political Action, BWOPA for short.
Woods-jones: When I think about it now, I think about it in terms of excitement, energy. So often people's view of the Bay Area, especially Oakland, it all sort of centers around the Black Panthers. And certainly they were active. But they came sometime after so many other very critical and demanding and engaged organizations and leaders. It was a wonderful place to be, especially at that age and in college, and a bit exposed to the movement.
Lee: What is it about the Bay Area that was so fertile for organizers and activists and movement builders to emerge from? Because California doesn't have a big Black population, right? (LAUGH) So it's not like Black folks are just everywhere. But what was it about what was going on in the Bay that was just so fruitful?
Woods-jones: You know, that's such an interesting question. And I think I would respond to say even though California, as we certainly know, does not have a large Black population, I can't even remember what it is now, but back in that day it was probably 6% or 7%.
But the Bay Area, and especially the East Bay, and especially Oakland, had a huge African American population. Back then, at that time, it was over 40%. And so that was a large, Black population base. But it also was a hotbed for academics and intellectuals.
Lee: There was, of course, UC Berkeley, one of the most progressive universities in the country. And Miss Dezie told me the very first Black Studies Department began at Merritt College in Oakland. The Bay Area was also where the openly socialist, anti-war activist Ron Dellums came up, and in 1970 became the first Black person from Northern California elected to Congress.
Ron Dellums: The best nuclear defense, Mr. Chairman, is no defense. But beyond that, a constructive dialogue and negotiation with the Soviet Union, backing away from the brink of this kind of annihilation. As Congress...
Woods-jones: So you had a lot of brain power. You had a lot of geniuses. You had a lot of people who understood that change had to happen. And so right in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement that was also going on in the South, there was all of this energy that was also going on in the Bay Area.
Lee: This was also a time when Black women were raising their voices, helping to organization an all-Black political gathering focused on the Black agenda in the late 1960s.
Woods-jones: We were very much a part of that, and included in this at one point, Maya Angelou, who spent a little time in San Francisco. And so we would meet. And we decided we wanted an all-Black conference, and we wouldn't let even the white media in. And of course they thought we were meeting and sabotaging, planning to, you know, have a revolution.
Lee: These activists were willing, literally, to put their lives on the line for the cause.
Woods-jones: The movement was a part of your total essence. It wasn't just words or verbiage. It became a part of who you were and your determination to act. We were really committed to die.
Lee: In the middle of all that energy and Black activism sat the Rainbow Sign, on the corner of what was then Grove Street and Derby, an imaginary line dividing the mostly white part of Berkeley from the mostly Black part of town.
Odette Pollar: There needs to be a central place where artists of all stripes, where Black artists in particular, could come to a single place and be heard, seen, respected and appreciated.
Lee: Mary Ann Pollar and her husband, Henry, opened its doors in 1971. They died years ago, but Odette Pollar is their daughter.
Pollar: So my mom was a concert promoter, right, in the '50s and '60s and into the '70s. But taking that and wrapping it around and saying, "All right, let us have our own space. That means we control this," you know, "We can do what we want with it. We can widen that scope." It's a leap, but it's not that far a leap. It's like the next iteration. It was also the first of its kind. And Berkeley, of course, was, you know, the place to put this physical building.
Lee: And the name, Rainbow Sign, I asked Odette about it. She told me her mother was inspired by a lyric in the old Black spiritual, Mary, Don't You Weep.
Pollar: "God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time."
Lee: That's the one and only Aretha Franklin covering it there. The lyric itself draws from a story in the Bible. During the Great Flood, God gave Noah the rainbow sign, a hopeful sign.
Pollar: She took that portion for Rainbow Sign, because she really did want it to be inclusive. And she wanted it to be open. And she wanted it to be large, not small, if that makes sense. And she wanted people to be accessible. So you could go to Rainbow Sign and meet James Baldwin or Maya Angelou. And you just lived right around the corner, right? Where else would you have that opportunity?
Lee: And also it's a very interesting counterpoint to James Baldwin's book of essays in 1963, The Fire Next Time, which in so many ways was an indictment of the complicity of white liberals especially in white supremacy. And take the first part of that lyric and say, "God gave Noah the rainbow sign," it does seem, like, hopeful and striving and reaching, not purely just an indictment.
Pollar: Exactly. And that was absolutely my parents' premise, because it was not primarily a political statement. Although if you had a political action committee, you might rent a room, right? So it was an art gallery. It was a restaurant. It was a performance venue. It was a poetry venue. You could use Rainbow Sign in whatever ways made groups come together more easily.
Lee: What do you remember of what that place just felt like, and what did you see when you walked in those doors?
Pollar: So what you would see is a lot of would. So you had warmth, right? It's an older building. So you had the lovely construction, you had the details, the architectural details that were attractive. You walked in, there was artwork. There are hallways going in different places. You can walk through and see the performance area. And then you walked into the art gallery, which extended also into the dining room.
Lee: Talk about just how important art was to the center.
Pollar: It was extremely important. So E.J. Montgomery was the director of the artistic piece of Rainbow Sign. And so we had, for example, one of the famous sculpted heads by Elizabeth Catlett.
Lee: Oh, she's one of my favorites. Like, when you see anything that she's ever done, it automatically is so striking and you know exactly who made it.
Pollar: Yeah, exactly. Romare Bearden hung on the wall. Kofi Bailey, Cleveland Bellow. It was just the who's who. And it was E.J. Montgomery who made sure that it was the who's who that hung on those walls.
Lee: In the middle of the space was a kitchen. In her memoir, Kamala Harris recalls the food.
Harris: It had a restaurant with a big kitchen, and somebody was always cooking up something delicious.
Pollar: She had two chefs that I remember well. One was a French-trained chef, and the other was a man named Papa San, who had his own restaurant that he was very well known for in West Oakland. She had excellent chefs. My mom was also an excellent cook. The menus were interesting. When Papa San was cooking, I know it was, you know, some traditional kind of soul food dishes.
Harris: Smothered chicken, meatballs and gravy, candied yams, cornbread, peach cobbler.
Pollar: The best peach cobbler on the planet.
Lee: Oh listen. (LAUGHTER)
Pollar: When the French chef was there, you would get coq au vin and you would get, you know, French onion soup and, you know, very traditional. My mom really wanted a mix of cuisines and to have the ability to introduce people to food that they may not have known. So there was kind of this familiar, new, familiar, new. The food was incredible. And some people just came to eat. So it was incredible.
Lee: And so much a part of the Civil Rights era, and even into the '70s and expressions of striving and freedom and liberation, came down to the music. Talk to us about the performances that would take place there, and also just the musicians. Who came through those doors?
Pollar: Lots of people. Taj Mahal was there. There were a lot of musicians, as well as we had author readings, for example. So you would have Joyce Carol Thomas, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Ntozake Shange. You just had some of the names of the day at Rainbow Sign, who were almost as famous then as they are now.
Harris: I loved the powerful orations from the stage and the witty, sometimes unruly, audience banter. It was where I learned that artistic expression, ambition, and intelligence were cool. It was where I came to understand that there was no better way to feed someone's brain than by bringing together food, poetry, politics, music, dance, and art.
Pollar: My mom, James Baldwin was a friend of hers. And Odetta, you know, used to stay in our home. So it was a smaller venue, so it was more intimate. So they were right there. So you could touch and taste them, you know what I mean? Touch, taste, and feel. It was just wonderful. I remember Odetta's performing Look What a Wonder, which was a play written specifically for Rainbow Sign. And I remember Nina Simone singing Suzanne.
Lee: Wow, you were in that space and you heard Nina Simone blessing the audience.
Pollar: Yes. Yes. I remember Compared to What, and Mr. Bojangles. I remember the audience moving and swaying and going along with it, if you know what I mean. You know, she could move that audience, pick them up, move them two inches to the left, put them back down, (LAUGH) whatever she wanted. Absolutely.
Lee: And while it wasn't a political club by design, politics found its way into Rainbow Sign, reaching impressionable young girls like Kamala Harris.
Harris: In 1971, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm paid a visit while she was exploring a run for president. Talk about strength, "Unbought and unbossed," just as her campaign slogan promised.
Lee: Here's Chisholm, announcing her run in 1972.
Shirley Chisholm: I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States of America. (APPLAUSE) I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am black and proud. (APPLAUSE) I am not the candidate of the Women's Movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I'm equally proud of that. (APPLAUSE)
Pollar: It was so important for that kind of support in both directions, not only to help Rainbow Sign come into existence, but also to have a place where a Ron Dellums or a Shirley Chisholm could come and talk to their constituents. So it wasn't all one sided, if that makes sense. Rainbow needed them, they needed Rainbow Sign.
Lee: Miss Dezie Woods-Jones, who you heard from earlier, used Rainbow Sign for political organizing too. It was here that she and a small group of other women founded that organization we talked about, BWOPA, Black Women Organized for Political Action.
Woods-jones: Stemming out of 12 women who were supporting Ron Dellums for his initial run for Congress, we decided that we wanted to create an ongoing place where we could have African American women engaged in the political process, to be a voice at the table.
And when we called a meeting at the Rainbow Sign to say, "African American women who are interested in being engaged in the political process, join us," we expected 30, 35, 40 people. And the result of that was, I bet you it was 250-300 women who showed up. We didn't know quite what to do with that many women. But it showed, again, what that place meant. It was the place to be.
Lee: So what happened to this hub of artistic and intellectual and political energy? And how did it shape a young Kamala Harris? That's after the break. Stick with us.
We're back, I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. And today we're going back in time, through the doors of a place called Rainbow Sign, a Black cultural center in Berkeley, California. A place that made an indelible impression on a little girl who would go on to become Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
But like so many good things, its existence was short lived. Rainbow Sign opened its doors in 1971, but just six years later, it was gone. Its founders weren't able to raise the funds to buy that building on Grove, and the rent was just too high.
But for people like Dezie Woods-Jones, the Rainbow Sign transcended that brief window of time. I asked her about that. And I wonder if the Rainbow Sign, and its biggest idea, what it meant, was it always more than just what was happening in the East Bay?
Woods-jones: Oh, I think so. I think so many of the things, and certainly including the Rainbow Sign, Trymaine, was really the genesis for a lot of other movements that sort of spurred up throughout the nation. Because, again, it was a comfortable place.
It was a place where African Americans knew that they had some control. National leaders, state leaders, regional leaders came out of that place. And of course, our now beautiful, young Vice President-elect-to-be Kamala Harris came out of that, you know, exposure.
Lee: So there it is, the Rainbow Sign then, Kamala Harris now. It's kind of amazing to realize the connections. In fact, the Vice President-elect is actually a member of Dezie's organization. Dezie has known her for years.
Woods-jones: I guess when I first remember meeting Kamala she was probably in her 20s, and she was an activist in full. But her parents are part of that activism community and that energy. So being exposed to that, you know, it has to have an impact on who you become and how you live.
Lee: Our VP-elect Kamala Harris speaks so fondly about the Rainbow Sign, and has written in her memoir just how it shaped her as a young person, with her mother and her sister, and the warmth that she felt there. And I wonder, when you see Kamala Harris now, whether it's making her victory speech as the first Black, woman VP, right, if you see a reflection of the Rainbow Sign and everything it represented in her.
Woods-jones: That is actually a beautiful question. And the answer has to be yes. I see so much more of Kamala in there, because I see her being a reflection of what we all felt there, you know? Her honesty, her authenticity, her love for her community, her love for her people, her love and her spirit.
And I think that's what we all kind of felt out of the Rainbow Sign. When I see Kamala, it's always a hug and a, "How are you doing?" And, "Mother Dezie," and you know, "Are you okay, and do you need?" I mean, and it's authentic. It's outside of the politics.
Lee: So given that background of the Rainbow Sign and the politics of the day, was it surprising to you at all that she ended up going into prosecution? That she ended up as a prosecutor?
Woods-jones: You know, Trymaine, it wasn't. It is so important that, again, we allow people to take the path that they feel is right for them, and right for them at that moment. Because it prepared her for much of what was to come. It was not a path that I necessarily thought she was going to go on, but it certainly didn't surprise me. She took the path that worked for her. And that gave her the synergy and the energy to become who she is now. So no, there was no surprise in that for me.
Lee: I wonder if you draw a clear, direct line from her rise and success, where she is now, to the Black women especially who worked so hard at movement building in places like the Rainbow Sign.
Woods-jones: Oh yeah. I think without a doubt. And I think she owns that. She knows that she was grounded in a place where African American women were engaged and involved, and was a part of, again, stepping out boldly in front. And so she takes that boldness and that energy from those women.
And I know she knows. And she has said it, and she's thankfully said it to me, personally, as well as to other Black women that she respects and she appreciates those shoulders on which she stand. And we love her and respect her for doing that.
Lee: What does her win mean for you personally?
Woods-jones: Oh, it's a wonderful moment of gratitude, appreciation, humbleness, even with my physical challenges. I was trying to jump up and down and holler at the same time. I was streaming with tears, with joy, and certainly thinking of the women who I've had the opportunity over my 79 years, 60 plus years of activism, to stand on their shoulders and watch them do that.
To know that they made the sacrifices so we can continue to make this progress. I'm happy, glad. But beside being happy, glad about her success, I am proud. But in addition to being proud, I am grateful that we are finally seeing the results, or we're seeing some results of the many, many years and the many, many individuals, and the result of many African American women who made this moment possible.
Lee: And for Odette Pollar too, whose mother had the vision for Rainbow Sign all those years ago, seeing Kamala Harris elected vice president has been really special.
Pollar: So Kamala got to see how far people had come and what people could achieve, and be that close to it. And it wasn't there's one person that looks like you. But here you have a building full of folks in various areas of expertise who have performed so well and done so well. So if you can see it, right, you can do it. My parents did amazing work and amazing things. I have no idea if they knew that this could be the outcome, right? But I know this was what the plan was. This was the desire. This was the intent.
Lee: That was Odette Pollar, daughter of Mary Ann Pollar, who founded the Rainbow Sign. Today Odette runs the Plant Exchange, a nonprofit community organization in Oakland. And Dezie Woods-Jones remains president of Black Women Organized for Political Action, the organization she founded at Rainbow Sign.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Special thanks this week to Tessa Rissacher for her research on Rainbow Sign. And you also heard Kamala Harris reading from her 2019 memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, published by Penguin Books and Penguin Audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.