Los Angeles is the second largest city in the United States but has received little attention from scholars of urban studies. While much has been written about the culture and lifestyle of the city, few books have been produced on Los Angeles politics. Since the 1965 Watts riot and the 1992 Rodney King case, there has been a renewed interest in the politics and race relations in this complex city.
After giving a brief historical survey of the multicultural development of Los Angeles, which is critical to an understanding of its politics, Raphael Sonenshein focuses on the growing political power of the city’s black population. Even though African Americans constituted a quickly growing percentage of the city’s population from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, they had virtually no voice in city government during those years. The turning point came in 1963, when Tom Bradley, a former Los Angeles police officer who became a liberal political activist, was elected to the city council, thus becoming the first black elected by the voters to city office. With this victory and the subsequent election of two additional African Americans in a runoff election that year, an organized and united black community overcame the indifference and hostility of city leaders to gain political representation.
This was a major victory, but black leaders in Los Angeles realized that it could not be sustained without the formation of a “biracial coalition” with white liberals in the city. In spite of their differences, blacks and white liberals shared much political ground. Blacks were intent on gaining political representation, while liberal whites were concerned with political reform. Both groups felt excluded from the civic culture, and each knew that without the other it would not be able to attain political power. By reaching out across racial lines, they could construct a powerful movement for social change.
After 1963, African Americans had gained a major beachhead in political representation, but it had little effect on the larger political scene in Los Angeles. All of this would quickly change, however, as the nationwide civil rights movement spread westward. Strengthened by the forging of a strong and united coalition with liberal whites, blacks believed that the time had come to mount a challenge to their common enemy: Mayor Sam Yorty and his conservative city government.
By 1965, the emerging progressive coalition supported California Congressman James Roosevelt for mayor. Roosevelt campaigned heavily in black neighborhoods, charging that Mayor Yorty had neglected their interests. For the first time in the city’s history, a white reform candidate was directly appealing to the black vote. On election day, however, Yorty crushed Roosevelt in the popular vote, in spite of Roosevelt’s strong showing in the black districts of the city. In this setting-a firmly entrenched conservative regime that continued to ignore the wants and needs of an alienated black community-the Watts riots were kindled.
On August 11, 1965, Marquette Frye, a twenty-one- year-old African American, was arrested by the California Highway Patrol for suspicion of drunk driving. When an angry crowd gathered, the situation quickly got out of hand as a group of men in the crowd began throwing rocks and bottles at passing vehicles. The resulting riot lasted four days, with thirty-one blacks and three whites killed. Suddenly race relations had become the number-one issue in Los Angeles politics.
The riots focused public attention on the social needs of the city and Mayor Yorty’s lack of leadership. Although many black city leaders feared that the riots would result in a white backlash and a polarization of the races, over time it became clear to both white liberals and the newly unified and mobilized black community that they had a valuable opportunity to create a more socially progressive city government. Unfortunately, it took an incident of massive civil violence to address the concerns of the black citizens of Los Angeles—concerns they were unable to express through the ballot box.
The Watts protest of 1965 was not solely responsible for the change in the political climate of the city. Reforms were aided by a new open-housing law, the federal antipoverty program, and a new policy of citywide elections. By 1969, African Americans felt confident enough to run black councilman Tom Bradley against Yorty in the November election. Yet in spite of a strong showing among black, Latino, and Jewish voters, Bradley...
(The entire section is 1845 words.)