The Root Cities: Who's Got the Power in the City of Angels

As part of The Root's city series, we take a look at black political power in the entertainment capital.

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Roscoe's House of Chicken 'n' Waffles, the landmark soul food eatery tucked in a dreary lot at the northern extremity of L.A.'s 10th City Council District, is a popular gathering place for the hip and the hungry. Slumming celebrities, multimillionaire athletes and just plain folks mingle among the tourists and the curious at the Southern-style diner, opened in the mid-1970s by transplanted Harlem restaurateur Herb Hudson. From morning until way past midnight, Roscoe's clientele is a testament to five-term Mayor Tom Bradley's dream of an international city, apparently come true. 

While L.A.'s status as the most racially and ethnically diverse city in the nation remains intact, the state of black politics in Los Angeles has become much less certain. When Bradley, the city's only African-American mayor, was elected in 1973, blacks were just 8 percent of L.A.'s population. By the time Bradley left office in 1993, the police chief was black (Willie Williams), three of 15 City Council seats were held by blacks (Mark Ridley-Thomas, Rita Walters and Nate Holden) and a black woman (Yvonne Brathwaite-Burke) sat on the powerful, five-member Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. 

Since then, rapidly shifting demographics have transformed many historically "black" areas of the city into majority Latino enclaves, including much of South Central L.A. As a result, while blacks still hold the three historically "safe" City Council seats, these seats become less secure each year as the black population dwindles and the Latino population -- now about 48 percent -- grows. More important, Latinos are much more politically organized than they were when Bradley was mayor. Indeed, the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Ramón Villaraigosa, is Mexican American.

Many astute observers of Los Angeles politics believe that African Americans made a critical mistake by not supporting Villaraigosa in 2005. Instead, black political leadership backed Villaraigosa's opponent, incumbent James Hahn, son of the late former Los Angeles City Councilman and L.A. Country Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, a longtime political ally of black Angelenos. While the decision to support Hahn was understandable, some believe the price of such sentimental loyalty may ultimately diminish the city's black political future. 

Still, the history of black political power in L.A. is an impressive one. In 1950, L.A.'s racist restrictive covenants in housing barred citizens of color from living anywhere except segregated sections of the city. They could not live in upscale neighborhoods like Hancock Park or Beverly Hills; Los Angeles was largely a "whites only" enclave -- and for the most part, so was its political scene. According to historian Raphael J. Sonenshein, "No African-American, Latino or Jewish person held elected office in the city of Los Angeles between 1900 and 1949, when a Latino, Edward Roybal, was elected to the City Council." 

Bradley, a political supporter of Roybal, joined him in 1962 and, along with Gilbert W. Lindsay and Billy G. Mills, became the first African-American member of the City Council. Since then, the three districts the men represented -- the 8th, 9th and 10th -- have been considered "safe seats" for an African-American candidate.

By 1973 Bradley had cobbled together his historic coalition of black pastors, labor activists, white liberals and Jewish and Latino progressives (Roybal among them), a transracial, transcultural alliance that would defy L.A.'s power elite and make Bradley the first African American elected mayor of a major U.S. city where blacks did not make up a plurality. 

Seething over his city's entrenched policies of racial injustice and discrimination, Hawkins began advancing a progressive agenda of welfare, anti-discrimination, quality education, access to health care, decent jobs and housing that would inspire and inform L.A.'s black political establishment into the 21st century. In 1962 Hawkins became the first African American from California elected to Congress. He was instrumental in establishing both the UCLA law and medical schools, was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and sponsor of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act. He retired from Congress Jan. 3, 1991, and died Nov. 10, 2007, at the age of 100.

Mervyn Dymally was another progressive-minded Democrat who emerged in the '60s. He began his career as a special education teacher and an organizer for the United Auto Workers of L.A., but soon focused his attention on L.A.'s segregated schools. He was elected to the California Assembly in 1962 and the state Senate in 1967, and became lieutenant governor in 1975. He was elected to Congress in 1981, and then again was elected to the California Assembly in 2002, where he served until his defeat by Roderick Wright in 2008. While in the Assembly, Dymally co-authored a bill, unique in U.S. history, requiring that African-American history be added to the curriculum in California public schools. 

Throughout the '70s, black L.A. began to drift westward out of the storied Central Avenue corridor, where it had languished for generations under de facto policies of segregation. Black homebuyers filled the vacuum left by whites, who had taken flight from the tree-lined avenues and hills of the Crenshaw District following the Watts Riots of 1965. Black folk soon spilled over into the contiguous 8th and 9th City Council districts, southeast of the 10th District, where their numbers reached 80 percent.