California Council for the Humanities
On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected 44th president of the United States. It was an undeniably historic, vividly symbolic moment. Voters turned out to the polls in record numbers, in some cases lining up before daybreak and-waiting for hours. In the midst of an economic collapse, the first-term senator ran an arduous yet energetic and innovative campaign—dependent on grassroots support, dedicated volunteers, collaboration, and coalitions—and became our first African-American president.
Before Obama, there was Tom Bradley.
Thirty-five years earlier, Tom Bradley made history by being elected as the first African-American mayor of a major US city with a white majority and went on to serve an unprecedented twenty years in office. Few know the story of the lifelong record breaker, trendsetting coalition builder, and former Los Angeles mayor. Soon, many more will.
With the support of the California Council for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities, Lyn Goldfarb and Alison Sotomayor are currently at work on a documentary film called Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race. In 2009, the Council awarded $60,000 to the project. This year, the pair received a major research and development grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities—the only NEH development or production grant awarded to a film in the state of California. Said Goldfarb in a recent interview, "The greatest reward in making this film is knowing that we are making a huge contribution to the knowledge and history of Los Angeles, California, and the nation." In addition to unearthing, constructing, and preserving the story of Bradley and his Los Angeles, the filmmakers are providing context for LA's current sociopolitical landscape and Obama's campaign and election.
The son of sharecroppers and the grandson of slaves, Tom Bradley moved to Los Angeles from Texas as a child. In the process of learning about Bradley's story, Goldfarb and Sotomayor have come to understand some of the complexities of Los Angeles—how it developed into the unique and multicultural city that it is, and how the African-American experience there has differed from that of other places. For many African-American families like Bradley's in the early 20th century, "California and the West were considered a 'Promised Land' of opportunity, possibility, and hope for a better life far from the lynchings and Jim Crow laws of the South," said Sotomayor. "Los Angeles was a place where a black person could own property and rise up—€although only in certain parts of segregated LA. In this context, a young Bradley could dream for success."
Tom Bradley accomplished myriad historic firsts before and during his astonishing five terms as mayor of Los Angeles from 1973-1993. He broke records and the color barrier as a student athlete at UCLA. He served as a police officer for 21 years and rose to rank of lieutenant, the highest rank an African-American could achieve at that time. At night, he attended law school and eventually became a lawyer. In 1963, Bradley became the first African-American elected to LA's City Council. He served as a councilman for ten years before being elected mayor.
Bradley first ran for mayor in 1969 during a time of great turmoil. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had recently been assassinated. Anti-war protests were taking place throughout the nation while the Black Panthers gained strength and momentum. In Los Angeles, the fear and anger of the 1965 Watts Race Riots were fresh in residents' minds.
When Bradley ran for mayor, LA's black population was only 17%, yet he mobilized incredible grassroots support and came from behind to become the top-ranking candidate. Then his opponent, incumbent Sam Yorty, "ran a very racist, very red-baiting campaign," said Goldfarb. "It scared people." For the next four years, the mayoral hopeful traveled all over the city, attending events and meeting everyone he could because, according to Goldfarb, he realized that many voters would need to be personally familiar with an African-American candidate in a mayoral election at that time. He wasn't just campaigning, she said, but "breaking down prejudice, breaking down stereotypes."
Bradley's 1973 election attracted national and international attention. The legacy he left for Obama, above all, was one of coalition building across many lines—racial, economic, political, religious, and geographic. Coalition building was a strategy but also a way of life for Bradley, and one that aligned with his understanding of and passion for democracy and democratic process.
His second campaign for mayor in 1973 was successful due to a true coalition between African-Americans, Jews, Latinos, Asian-Americans, white liberals, and student groups. He struggled with and broke through many of the issues that had historically faced those populations and the city of Los Angeles, asserted Goldfarb. "And who did he pick for his campaign manager? A white, Jewish, gay leftist. That's what coalition building is all about," she said. "He always built bridges, even as a police officer. He worked with a Latino cop; that was unusual at the time."
As Mayor, Bradley redefined and fundamentally transformed Los Angeles. He brought women and minorities into City Hall and commission positions. He fought long and hard to reform LA's police department and place it under civilian control. He facilitated conversations between labor and the business sector. He brought the 1984 Olympics to Los Angeles, pulling the city into the global spotlight and hosting what many consider to be the first profitable Games. Late last year, LA's Crenshaw post office was renamed in Bradley's honor. President Obama signed the bill.
Of course, the complete story of Bradley isn't only historic breakthroughs and glowing accomplishments. Mayor Bradley presided over a city that grew increasingly polarized between the rich and poor, where drugs and gang violence were rampant, police abuse and unemployment pervasive, and necessary amenities like banks and supermarkets nearly non-existent in minority neighborhoods. Bradley's African-American/Jewish coalition began to fray at the edges during a controversial visit and speech by the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Meanwhile, some African-American and Latino groups began to openly accuse Bradley of neglecting their poor neighborhoods to concentrate on building up downtown Los Angeles and the affluent West-side. A slow, political downfall continued for the city's most popular mayor. Near the end of Bradley's fifth term in 1992, the city exploded in three days of civil unrest, triggered by the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King.
Sotomayor recalled one particularly moving interview with Bradley's bodyguard who was with him during the unrest. He said: "Flying above the city in a helicopter, witnessing the city erupt in flames and in complete chaos, a city in which he loved and proudly served for 51 years, just tore him up deep. All that hard work comes down to this. I think he was saying to himself, 'My time as Mayor has come to an end.' He was just too proud to cry." Bradley eventually resigned, but not without one last victory—€”being able to implement civilian control and accountability for the LAPD.
In the years since his death, his story has been largely relegated to the footnotes of history. Goldfarb and Sotomayor are working to change that.
Goldfarb and Sotomayor both grew up in LA—one in a Jewish household in the San Fernando Valley, the other in a Latino household in East Los Angeles—and have a great relationship as co-producers who bring different perspectives and experiences to the story they're telling. Their editor, Lillian Benson, and cinematographer, Michelle Crenshaw, also bring different experiences and backgrounds to the mix. Both are African-American and neither grew up in LA. This diversity of voices and perspectives is shaping the film and making it a stronger, better piece of work, according to Goldfarb. "[We] have a great collaborative process. We believe in diversity and collaboration."
Tom Bradley would surely approve.
The filmmakers have also been building a larger coalition around their documentary film, collaborating with and asking for input from scholars, archivists, historians, and the public. This careful research and collaboration is a concerted effort in favor of historical accuracy and complexity. CCH supports filmmakers to do precisely this—work closely with humanities scholars to do deeper research, gain new perspectives, and examine the broader contexts of the stories they want to tell.
The pair is also doing a tremendous amount of original research because, surprisingly, no scholarly biography of Tom Bradley exists. They are putting together and sharing a much-needed set of resources on Bradley and his experiences. In addition to the documentary, which will be broadcast nationally by PBS once completed, the pair are working on numerous related projects, including: an educational video for students; "Share Your Tom Bradley Story" booths to be set up throughout Los Angeles, which will gather residents' Bradley stories, memories, and photos; and a filmed oral history archive of their research to be made available to filmmakers and researchers once Bridging the Divide is complete. "We feel a tremendous obligation and responsibility that we couldn't just 'make a film,'" said Goldfarb. "We felt that we were taking on an important period, an important time in history; we feel a responsibility to make this information available in as many formats as possible."
The pair created the film's web-site and began promoting the project early on—much earlier than they have done with other projects—while raising money, planning, and conducting research, thereby including a wider community in the making of the film. This has already begun to pay off. Archivists and historians are starting to come to them with information and material rather than the other way around. This year, an archivist contacted them about an enormous cache of previously mis-filed materials on Bradley—much of it saved in outdated or obsolete formats—that no one had seen for years.
During one meeting with a group of African-American scholars, Goldfarb said, she was struck by "the tremendous responsibility that Alison and I had. Here we are, a white woman and a Latina telling a story about an African-American—but we're telling a story about coalitions, so it makes sense. We felt like there was no contradiction. But we had an enormous responsibility to get the story right. We look at our team as collaborators, and we have a strong relationship with our very diverse advisory board of scholars."
"Film is not about 'making a film.' Film is about creating a product that promotes dialogue and conversation," said Goldfarb. "It helps you reflect about your history and helps you understand a period of time and how change occurs. [Making a film like this] takes a long time. You don't want to say 'the conversation comes later.' So we decided we were going to start that dialogue early, and the dialogue will help the film in the long run."
Tom Bradley would approve.
Wrote journalist Michael Sigman, "the story of Bradley's record-breaking five mayoral terms and central role in L.A.'s transformation to world-class status—unknown to most Angelenos under the age of 35—is far more than an overdue bit of historical housekeeping. Just as Bob Dylan wouldn't be possible without Woody Guthrie, or Ronald Reagan without Barry Goldwater, the idea of a direct line from Tom Bradley to Barack Obama can give us perspective on the contemporary political scene."
One could draw a certain kind of line across years and space connecting Bradley and his story to Barack Obama and another kind of line between Bradley and the people who are working to make his story known. A coalition is needed in order to tell the full story—a fascinating and complex story—about this coalition builder.
Mayor Tom Bradley lost the California governor's race in 1982 even though he ranked first in the polls going into the elections. Had he won, he would have been the nation's first popularly elected black governor. This phenomenon, in which voter opinion polls about a non-white candidate and actual election outcomes differ, likely due to concealed racism, was deemed "the Bradley effect."
Sigman noted that, twenty-six years after Bradley's loss, "pundits predicted, incorrectly, that 'the Bradley effect' would doom Barack Obama's presidential bid."
Perhaps, once more people know the story of Tom Brad-ley—all of it, or as much as can be known—"the Bradley effect" will mean something entirely different.
Goldfarb and Sotomayor are looking forward to flipping the phrase on its head. "Bradley's story and legacy has been forgotten and distorted. Bridging the Divide will set the record straight and ensure Bradley's political significance to Los Angeles and the nation is no longer overlooked," said Sotomayor.
The Council is proud to support them in their work. They're making a film, yes. But, as they put it, they're doing more; they are working to start and sustain an important conversation.
Yes, Tom Bradley would approve.
Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race is supported by the Council's California Documentary Project. To support and learn more about the California Documentary Project and grant application deadlines, visit our website at www.calhum.org. To support and learn more about the film, go to www.mayortombradley.com.