Densho Digital Archive
Emiko and Chizuko Omori Collection
Title: Ernest Besig Interview
Narrator: Ernest Besig
Interviewers: Chizu Omori (primary), Emiko Omori (secondary)
Location: San Francisco, California
Date: October 1, 1992
Densho ID: denshovh-bernest-01-0001

<Begin Segment 1>

EO: Could you get into talking about, sort of, how you got started in the business of being a lawyer?

EB: Being a lawyer? Well, I think some reference was made to the fact that I'm a New Yorker who was born near Albany, and raised around New Jersey. And finally went to school at Cornell University where I got my AB and LLD, and then worked for a judge. About a year of him was all I could take, and then went to school -- went to school... went to Rochester, New York, and worked for a firm. And the Depression came along, the stock market broke. And I was a young man, and I decided to come west. I had a sister in Los Angeles, and I lived down there for about five years. During that time I got acquainted with the ACLU. And in fact, became a member of their board. And also got involved with the Imperial Valley problems. There were all sorts of problems that arose in the Imperial Valley, and it would be digressing, I suspect, if I gave you my history of activities in the Imperial Valley, being beaten up and taken to jail and one thing or another.

EO: Okay, could you give us a little bit?

EB: A little bit? Well, a little bit... I was asked to go to the Imperial Valley to see what was going on because there were all sorts of strikes there, difficulties, people weren't allowed to meet on the streets, so I went down there to see what was going on. I was told by those who were leading the strike that they weren't being allowed to hold meetings. And this was right down my alley. I said, "Of course you're entitled to hold a meeting."


EO: Can we just back up a little bit and just tell, describe for the audience, what, who was striking in the Imperial Valley. Who were these people?

EB: These were people who were working in the fields. And some of the left-wingers had gotten in there, and were... I can't remember the name of the woman who married a Japanese here, but she was interested in the things going on in the, going on in the Imperial Valley. The meeting was scheduled and I went there but the growers beat me to it. They had taken over the meeting place and they picked, and I was picked up and taken to jail. And I was kept in jail and I decided I wouldn't leave the jail until the audience had left. And as a matter of fact, a lawyer who lived in the area came around when he discovered I was arrested and he came to my help and I went to his office and stayed in his office all night. And the following morning I took the train to San Diego and then went home.

But on another occasion, Jerry Vorhees, have you ever heard of Jerry Vorhees? I drove in his car to the Imperial Valley. We were going to see a general who Ma Perkins had sent to the Imperial Valley. He, he requested that the ACLU somebody -- send somebody, and I went down there. And I was under his support during the time that I was in the neighborhood. I wasn't allowed to go up to see the people who had been arrested. They were being held incommunicado. Well, nothing was being accomplished, so I was scheduled to return to San Francisco. But I was waiting for the train to come along when this chap came along and just punched me. He was a pugilist. And he said, "That's Bessie. He's a red." In consequence, he bloodied me and I needed a little work from a physician. So a physician was gotten hold of and I was stitched up. So it was a couple of days more before I left the Imperial Valley and returned to San Francisco. On another occasion, I say, Jerry Voorhees was in the lead car and there were five or six cars that had come to --


EO: You were telling us about another incident there with Voorhees.

EB: Voorhees, yes, Voorhees who became a congressman, Jerry Voorhees. A very decent guy. We went down there at the request of the general who had been sent there by Ma Perkins to interview him as to the situation in the Imperial Valley. He was unable to see us, however, because some of the local people had drugged his drink. So he was in no condition to interview us. The growers, however, wanted us out of town. Drove us, forced us back into our cars and we returned to where we came, except that they shot guns on the pavement to move us along, to scare us a bit. And we returned to, I returned to Los Angeles. There was another person who had a big car, they, his... and a beautiful car, an expensive car. They shot at his tires and of course the tires were knocked off. And he was arrested, picked up, some false allegation was made, but he came from a wealthy family and nothing ultimately happened to him. His mother had plenty of money to take care of the automobile. But this is the sort of thing that happened in the Imperial Valley at that time.

EO: Were the strikers people of color, or...?

EB: Well, they were generally Mexicanos. They weren't blacks at that time. They hadn't come, come to that area.

CO: Native Americans or Asians?

EB: I would say they were, they had, we were right near the border. And I would say most of the people were living around there and working in the fields.

EO: Earlier you said it was right up your alley to get involved in this kind of thing. What did you mean by that?

EB: Well, I believe in civil liberties, freedom of speech, freedom of press, religious liberty and so on. And when the right of people to assemble is being denied as they were being denied down there, or to hold a meeting, this is something -- [sneezes] -- that I'm concerned about. Excuse me. And that's what I meant. Isn't that clear?

EO: Now it's clear.

EB: Oh, good.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 1992, 2003 Densho and Emiko Omori. All Rights Reserved.