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.
But Bradley, Lindsay and Mills were not black L.A.'s first political champions. That distinction goes to the venerable Augustus F. "Gus" Hawkins, a soft-spoken, light-skinned Negro who migrated from Louisiana to South Central Los Angeles in 1918, at the age of 11. He was elected to the state Assembly in 1934 at the age of 27.
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.
According to Willis Edwards, a longtime L.A. political strategist and activist who now sits on the board of the Tom & Ethel Bradley Foundation, today's "power bloc" in the city is held by Mark Ridley-Thomas and Maxine Waters. Until her retirement last year, Edwards says, Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.) "was probably the most electable elected official there was, because of her ability to communicate with all constituency groups within her own district and give them a voice at the table that made them feel wanted rather than excluded." (In 1978 Watson became the first black woman elected to the California state Senate.)
Ridley-Thomas, who began his career as a schoolteacher and served as director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, is known for his ability with grassroots organization. After having served on the L.A. City Council, the state Assembly and the state Senate, Ridley-Thomas is now one of L.A. County's five so-called little kings, serving more than 10 million Angelenos in the nation's most populous county.
Teaching also served as an entrée to politics for Waters, who began her career as a Head Start teacher. In the early '70s, she became chief deputy to City Councilman David Cunningham Jr., who filled the 10th District seat on the City Council that was vacated by Bradley in 1973.
"I thought she was a pretty brilliant young lady," recalls Cunningham, now a public affairs consultant. "I brought her in, and history tells you the rest of the story." Waters was elected to the state Assembly in 1976 and currently represents the 35th Congressional District, a post (formerly the 29th) once held by Gus Hawkins. In 1996 she was elected chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. She is currently under congressional investigation for alleged ethic violations.