Carl Clemons Succumbs at 98 in S.B.
By Dianne Anderson
Straight to the point with no mess around, Carl Clemons was a trailblazer that lived through nearly a century of San Bernardino before and during its so-called glory days.
He loved his community, but he also navigated thick de facto segregation that permeated every area of his daily life, from jobs to housing to education, and the police.
Mr. Clemons passed away late last month. He was 98 years old.
“He was very smart, very scholastically driven,” said Rev. Bronica Martindale-Taylor, who served several years with Clemons as part of their Voices for Change project. The name later changed to the African American Police Advisory Commission.
She said he always stood for community justice, and that he wanted to see justice in the police department.
“He’s always been an advocate for righteousness in our system. One of the things he learned with me together is about accountability. He learned we can say that word all day long, but if the administration is corrupt, it doesn’t mean [a thing],” she said.
He was a lifetime advocate.
But probably one of his more unpopular positions that sparked some pushback is that Clemons wanted Black men to be compliant when stopped by the police, and not run. He wanted them to learn they didn’t have the same rights in the eyes of a corrupt officer.
“That’s what he was trying to [say] to our young Black men. Stop trying to think that you have rights that supersede their white supremacy. If you have a cop that is a white supremacist, you give them justification to be outside of protocol,” she said.
In an extensive interview conducted by retired CSUSB professor Dr. Joyce Hanson for the San Bernardino Oral History Project, Clemons reflected on his early days. He talked about how his mother graduated from a university in South Carolina, where she had also taught school, but she couldn’t land a job at the San Bernardino City Unified School District.
Employment discrimination was everywhere.
“They wouldn’t hire any minorities. And then my father was a mechanic and he couldn’t get a job as a mechanic. So he worked as a janitor at three banks. And my mother had to do domestic work. She worked for Senator Ralph Swing and some of the others,” he said in the interview.
Clemons served in the military for three years ending 1946 to become the first African American machinist at Santa Fe Railroad, earning 52 and one-half cents per hour. Back then, Black and Brown workers were relegated to one side, where they toiled at the dirtiest grimiest parts that were sent all cleaned up for the white side of the shop.
After the war, he said things were different.
“You don’t want to bring in discrimination you know all the time. But in some of the restrooms, they had signs for white only. So when we came back we tore those down. No, I went in the service. I am not going to take this. And nobody put them back up,” said Clemons, who earned his Associate of Arts Degree at San Bernardino Valley College.
He described discrimination as tightly entwined throughout the city. There were no good jobs for Blacks, therefore not enough money. His parents bought their house, only one of three Black families west of Mt. Vernon.
Clemons grew up on the Westside, serving numerous city advisories and commissions spanning decades, including Inland Congregations United for Change, Northwest Project Area Committee, the Human Relations Commission. Also, on the executive board for the YMCA, and the Community Scholarship Association, to name a few.
He described how Kaiser Steel in Fontana and Hanford Foundry in San Bernardino, and then Norton Air Force Base, brought some equal employment opportunities, which helped.
“You were segregated because of the fact of you live over here. So it was something, so it was my hometown,” he said, explaining how redlining kept discrimination and division thriving in the real estate market.
“Or an example, if you bought land and built a home in a predominantly Black neighborhood, and I’m speaking about Caucasians, and then you wanted to sell it, who could you sell it to? You could only sell it to Blacks because the Caucasians are not going to buy a house in the Black area. You know that’s economics. Money. Money is the whole control… and the way the area was here in those days. Or even now I guess.”
Over the decades, he received accolades from senators and congressmen for his work on committees. At Norton AFB, he received recognition as an Equal Opportunities Counselor to address and reduce discrimination complaints. He was a member of the North West Project Area Committee, and Neighborhood Housing Service.
For as long as Rikke Van Johnson can remember from his childhood, Mr. Clemons was part of the family picture. He was good friends with Johnson’s father.
“My father introduced him to his wife,” Johnson said.
Just last week, he knew something was not quite right even before he heard the news of Mr. Clemons passing when he drove past the old familiar house on Baseline, that same house set across from Arroyo Valley High School where Clemons had lived for decades.
There were no cars in his driveway.
Several years ago, Johnson also interviewed Clemons along with the late community activist Jack Hill, whom he described as both patriarchs of the Westside.
For Johnson, the former Sixth Ward City Councilmember, Clemons leaves behind a legacy of caring deeply about the Sixth Ward.
“One of the many things he fought for was to make sure that police were fair in their treatment toward the minority community,” said Johnson. “He was always interested in our community to make sure that things were getting done, that the Sixth Ward was not being ignored.”
In a 2017 interview with the Precinct Reporter, Mr. Clemons explained why he was participating as a police commissioner, and on the advisory. Accountability was the main issue, both at the community and city levels.
He talked about reaching the community with life-saving information about how to respond when stopped by police.
“All they hear is from people on their side of the aisle saying, ‘they can’t stop you, you have rights,’” Clemons had said. “But if he says stop, and sit down – sit down. If he says put your hands behind your back, put your hands behind your back.”
He believed the one that holds the gun, at least for the moment, had the rights.
“The young people do not accept that police have the authority to search whenever they want, and they have the means to shoot when they want,” he said.
To read more about Mr. Clemons contributions to San Bernardino, https://sbpl.org/services/local_history/historical_treasures_of_san_bernardino/oral_history_project/carl_clemons