Racial Politics of Today Took Root in LA Mayoral Contests Decades Ago

Raphael Sonenshein
Executive Director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State LA, and author of Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles (Princeton U. Press, 1993)

He seemingly came out of nowhere, a populist of uncertain ideology who promised justice for communities that had long been marginalized by elites who ran the city.  He had an eye for the media and an instinct for the jugular. His name was Sam Yorty, and he may have invented the racialized politics that we see today.  With no organization to speak of, he won the Los Angeles mayor’s office in 1961.

Yorty was a renegade Democrat detested by his own party and held in contempt by Republicans, who preferred the incumbent Norris Poulson.  Yorty emerged from a crowded field in the nonpartisan primary to face Poulson in the runoff.  He  made up for his lack of elite support through an alliance with broadcast journalist George Putnam, who gave Yorty endless free publicity on his popular shows.  Poulson suffered from a serious throat condition and Yorty made certain the voters knew it by challenging the mayor to debates and then berating him for refusing.  Yorty won the election and embarked on three contentious terms in office.

Yorty had appealed to African Americans in his campaign by promising that to hold the LAPD accountable for its behavior in minority neighborhoods.  Soon after taking office, however, Yorty veered toward the racist, authoritarian police chief William Parker. He tapped into the growing resistance among many whites to a changing Los Angeles, particularly in the San Fernando Valley.  Long before white backlash became a common term, Yorty became its master practitioner.

Yorty soon ran up against another insurgency.  Shut out of city hall by the conservative elite, African Americans and liberal whites, particularly Jews, joined with Asian Americans and Latinos to form a new progressive coalition.

The liberal alliance fostered a vision of a more cosmopolitan, inclusive city, while Yorty appealed to nostalgia for an earlier period of a more provincial, homogenous city. Councilmember Tom Bradley was the leader of the coalition.  Bradley wanted Los Angeles to accept federal antipoverty funds, while Yorty resisted any outside “interference.”   As an advocate of police reform, Bradley soon became the most vocal and visible thorn in Yorty’s side, and as a former police officer, in Parker’s as well.  They each saw Bradley as their mortal enemy.

The faux populist of 1961 became the avatar of a threatened white community in the face of an insurgency led by a thoughtful, popular and experienced African American.  The maverick Yorty’s political strength proved surprisingly durable, and he easily beat liberal congressman James Roosevelt in 1965.   But in 1969 he faced his greatest threat when Bradley challenged him for mayor.  With heavy backing from the police department, Yorty charged that Bradley was a militant allied with the Black Panthers and characterized his white liberal supporters as communists.  Yorty’s charges worked, and he beat Bradley.

Bradley finally ended Yorty’s run in 1973 in a rematch for the mayor’s seat. Bradley launched his historic 20-year, five-term run as mayor.

Yortyism proved more durable than Yorty when Daryl Gates became Police Chief in 1978. As Bradley challenged the unaccountable power of the police, Gates resisted him at every turn.  With the help of Jewish City Councilmember Zev Yaroslavsky, Bradley eliminated the police intelligence files that had intimidated elected officials and community activists, and ended the use of the fatal chokehold.  But the chief’s civil service protection remained.  The mayor could not fire the police chief. As Bradley’s fifth term drew to a close, with fissures in his interracial coalition, it appeared that Gates might outlast Bradley.

The televised beating of Rodney King in 1991 provided the “teachable moment” that opened the door to change.  Bradley’s appointment of the Christopher Commission led to Proposition F that voters passed in 1992.  Bradley’s coalition came together one more time to get reform over the finish line. The measure abolished the chief’s civil service protection, and Gates resigned.

We celebrate Bradley’s 100th birthday this December 29th.  From the day he joined the LAPD in 1940 until the passage of Prop F. in 1992, Bradley fought to create a more humane and just police department as part of his overall vision of a more modern, world-facing, and inclusive Los Angeles.  Once a track star as a sprinter at LA Polytechnic High School and then at UCLA, Bradley as mayor ran a marathon.

His story can serve as a reminder that the political faultlines of today have more history and endurance than we might imagine, and will not end any time soon.  Justice is the work of many years.  The work of building and tending coalitions across racial lines is not a task for the moment, but a lifetime commitment through thick and thin. And as Bradley’s case shows, historic victories most often go to the persistent, who are prepared to move change when openings appear.

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