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Black History Month: A Spotlight on Black Leaders in the Political History of Los Angeles

By Lindsay Turpin

To celebrate Black history, we must acknowledge the trailblazers of the past who have made possible the experiences of Black Americans today - this is certainly not a new concept. However, a more localized perspective on Los Angeles politics helps to contextualize the particular ways that Black people have shaped the region from its start, from the founding of the city of Los Angeles. With these stories in mind, it becomes clear that LA would not be the leading city in our nation that it is today without the hard work of these leaders, among countless others.

Pío de Jesús Pico

In studying the chronology of influential Black leaders in Southern California, we must keep in mind the structures that were in place before U.S. colonization of the region. Of the 44 founders of Los Angeles, 26 were of African descent, which means that Black history is present at the start of the city. The city was named Los Angeles in 1781, and though Spain was the colonizer at the time, Mexico won independence in 1821 and started its own government in Alta California. An influential Black politician in this era and one of the first governors of the California region was Pío de Jesús Pico, a man of African and American descent.

Pío Pico became a member of Alta California’s diputación, the legislature, in 1826 before his election as governor in 1845. He was the last governor of California while it was still part of Mexico. Though he was forced to flee soon after he assumed the role in 1846, and the west coast was lost to the U.S., Pico eventually returned to Los Angeles. He continued to influence the region as he had accrued substantial wealth during the gold rush and in the cattle business. Pico spread his legacy throughout the region by starting the Pico House Hotel and investing in the LA Petroleum Company. In fact, Pico Boulevard, a well known road in modern LA, and the city Pico Rivera, are named after him.

Tom Bradley

Tom Bradley has a strong legacy in LA politics, as he served the role of Mayor of Los Angeles for 20 years from 1973-1993. He was the first Black mayor of LA, and played a leading role in establishing the region as a populous and strong economic hub on the west coast. It surpassed Chicago and became the second largest city in the United States during his time in office. A few of Bradley’s most memorable achievements were expanding public transportation, hosting the Olympics in LA in 1984, environmental reforms, hiring women and minorities to roles in City Hall, and protecting LGBTQ+ people and those with AIDS from discrimination. Bradley even ran for Governor of California two times, and was so close to winning - he only lost by under 1%.

Mayor Bradley confronted police brutality again and again during his tenure, and though he was part of the LAPD for 21 years before his political career, he was often at odds with white pro-police figures. The police chief during Bradley’s second term, Daryl Gates, was an instigator of racist targeting and murder by police in minority neighborhoods. The issue of police brutality was one that haunted Bradley throughout his career. After the 1992 Rodney King riots exposed the continuing presence of deep inequalities and cruel police violence, he chose not to run for reelection.

Racial divisions still lingered after LA’s 20 years with a Black mayor, but he received an unprecedented amount of support for his time. Despite those who stood in Bradley’s way, he was able to gain an immense amount of favor in LA when the Black population was only 15%. His multi-racial coalition of supporters has been likened to that of President Obama’s in 2008. Los Angeles likely would not be the city it is today without Bradley’s persistence with progressive policies and bolstering of the economy.

Gilbert Lindsay

Gilbert Lindsay, LA’s first Black city council member, served on the council starting in 1963, along with Tom Bradley. He was first appointed to this position to fill Ed Roybal’s seat, so Bradley was technically the first elected Black council member during the election later that year. Lindsay represented the 9th council district, a region that spanned from the financial district downtown to the south-central area of LA. Along with Bradley, he has been credited for the exponential growth of business and high-rise buildings in downtown Los Angeles during the 70’s and 80’s. Lindsay was on the Council for 27 years before he died of a stroke while still in office at 90 years old.

“Lindsay had become a political force commanding the attention and respect of power brokers, whom he had once cleaned up after while working as a janitor,” wrote the LA Times after his death. He was a true politician in that he took pride in his connections, which is how he was appointed in the first place. A council member in 1963, Kenneth Hahn, recommended Lindsay for Roybal’s seat because he had helped him secure votes from Black Angelenos in his own election. There were some questions of how far Lindsay took the concept of connections - he had some big business supporters in the wings - but his legacy is nonetheless one of commitment to the 9th district. His eight terms in office demonstrate the favor of his constituents.

Herb Wesson

The first Black president of LA City Council is still an influential figure to this day, as he left the council just recently. Herb Wesson was elected to represent the 10th district, which encompasses Koreatown, Mid-City, West Adams, and other regions in South LA, in 2005, then chosen as president in 2012. His legacy, though somewhat complex, includes several policies that have brought immense benefit to his district and broader Los Angeles. Wesson played a role in the increase of minimum wage to $15, creating a committee on homelessness and poverty, and a policy to cut down on single use plastic bags and straws, among others.

Not all council members have had smooth relationships with Wesson, however. Back in 2012, when he was voted president, his peers Jan Perry and Bernard Parks did not show up to vote for him. He removed some of their committee assignments shortly after, which they claimed was backlash. Later on, he was part of redistricting decisions that diminished the districts of Perry and Parks, though he claimed these decisions were to prevent other Council members from exploiting divisiveness among the Council's Black members. Perry and Parks are also Black, and though the preservation of Black council seats has been a priority in the past, some suggest the new configuration was to minimize opposition to himself on the council.

Wesson was involved in another controversy in 2022 where he was appointed to the council again for a short time to replace Mark Ridley-Thomas, a councilman charged with bribery, conspiracy and fraud. However, he was forced to resign when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference saw this as a violation of term limits and filed a lawsuit. Despite Wesson’s complicated history in City Hall, he is still seen as a positive figure overall. In fact, the steps in front of City Hall were named after him on February 1st this year to celebrate the first day of Black History Month.

Yvonne Wheeler

Moving to wins within the past year, Yvonne Wheeler has made history as the first Black woman to head the LA County Federation of Labor. She takes on this role as a knowledgeable and experienced union leader and advocate for labor rights. Wheeler’s past experiences as President of California State A. Philip Randolph Institute, an AFL-CIO National Field Representative, Co-Chair of LA Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, and California Area Director for AFSCME Western Region prepared her for such a significant role at the top of a federation leading 300+ unions/labor organizations. Elected after the LA city council recording leak scandal where former LA Fed President Ron Herrera was forced to resign, she is seen as a beacon of hope for leadership with integrity.

Karen Bass

As the first Black woman elected as Mayor of Los Angeles, with icons such as Stevie Wonder and Amanda Gorman performing at her inauguration, and Vice President Kamala Harris swearing her in, Karen Bass is clearly a leader surrounded by support and admiration. Prior to this role, she created and led the Community Coalition to aid Black and Latino Angelenos in poverty, served on the California State Assembly and as its first Black female Speaker, and represented California’s 33rd congressional district from 2011-2022.

Bass is known for maintaining positive connections in the political sphere and advocating for underserved populations, starting toward the beginning of her political career in 1990 with efforts to reduce substance abuse through the Community Coalition, and continuing with her initiatives to decrease homelessness during her first month as mayor.

During her years in office as a congresswoman and assemblymember, Bass initiated and supported major policies for housing assistance and addiction treatment centers, pandemic relief, improvement of water quality from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, expansion of California infrastructure such as roads, highways, and clean energy, support for foster youth, healthcare for South LA communities, and racial justice as the former leader of the California Legislative Black Caucus. Bass’s tireless efforts to improve quality of life for Angelenos and Californians will undoubtedly continue during her tenure as mayor.

And more…

These are just some of the Black politicians who have been influential in Los Angeles politics. There are certainly many others, besides the “firsts”, who have worked on the radar or behind the scenes to build the region to where it is today and advocate for better government. Other elected officials throughout the state such as Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Marvyn Dymally, Julian C. Dixon, Ronald Dellums, Diane Watson, Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee, Shirley Weber, and Walter Rayford Tucker III, have been and continue to be forces for good in California politics, and these are just a few of the most popular names. The most important takeaway is that Black history is key in Los Angeles and California politics, since even before the United States took over the region, and Black leaders are continuing to shape the city of LA.


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