Forty-Four years ago on this day in 1973, Thomas J. “Tom” Bradley (December 29, 1917 – September 29, 1998) handily defeats three-time incumbent Sam Yorty to become the first black mayor of Los Angeles. The son of sharecroppers and grandson of slaves, also holds several distinctions as mayor in addition to being the first Black mayor of L.A., he was the first Black mayor of a city without an African-American majority, he was the second Black mayor of a major U.S. city, and the longest termed mayor in L.A. history.
“Tonight was the fulfillment of a dream — an impossible dream — because the people of this city have given to me the highest honor that can be given to any citizen,” said the newly minted mayor.
The hard-fought victory came on the heels of yet another racially charged campaign by Bradley’s opponent, who four years earlier had eeked out a slim victory over the political upstart by slinging racial slurs and questioning whether the twenty-year veteran of the police department would be soft on crime.
“I”m not so sure the race issue is put to rest,” said Bradley in the Deseret News, “but if I succeed at Mayor, as I expect to, that issue won’t be as formidable next time. We’re trying hard for a spirit of cooperation here. I’m sure we’ll make it.”
During his record five terms in office, Bradley was best known for creating the infrastructure for subway and metro systems and successfully courting the 1984 Summer Olympics — a phenomenal public relations and financial success — to the city. He made a number of changes to the city that opened up business, transportation, and development in Los Angeles. He also signed off on Los Angeles’ first pro-gay rights bill before the decade was out and led the city in getting the 1984 Summer Olympics. He had an opportunity to enter national politics with a position in Jimmy Carter’s cabinet but declined to continue running Los Angeles.
The 1970s was a decade mired with crime and Los Angeles wasn’t immune. While the police chief under Yorty was ousted, he was replaced with someone who also unfavorable—Daryl Gates, co-founder of the SWAT unit and a chief known for being hyper aggressive. Bradley’s term also saw drugs hit the city and street gangs increase in power.
The improvements to transportation were undone by the late 1980s with pollution and traffic problems. Also, businesses moving into neighborhoods and buying up property because an issue that Bradley wouldn’t be able to avoid. His run as mayor finally unraveled for a number of reasons including supporters losing their city council seats.
The final nail came in the early 1990s with the 1991 police beating of Rodney King. Following that was the 1992 riot as a result of the acquittal of the officers. He opted to not run again in 1993.
“Tom Bradley was a very great public figure,” said historian and California State Librarian Kevin Starr in the Los Angeles Times. “I know of no one with a greater gift for reconciliation and healing.”
“He was a prism through which we can see both the rise of Los Angeles as an international city and the reemergence of a vibrant black community that reaches back to the very beginnings of the Pueblo. . . . His mayoralty was a time in which Los Angeles reconfigured itself, redefined itself.”
Born in rural Calvert Texas, Bradley’s family moved to Los Angeles when he was 7 years old. For more than a million African Americans who migrated West in the early 20th century, Los Angeles was considered the “Promised Land,” providing the hope of a better life – far from the lynchings, urban riots and Jim Crow laws of the South. Bradley grew up on Central Avenue in Los Angeles, the heart of the black community. It was a relatively small, close-knit community, where neighbor helped a neighbor, offering stability, optimism, and a sense of belonging. It was in this Los Angeles that Bradley could dream the impossible dream – a life of hope and an enduring belief that change is possible.
Raised by a single mother, Tom Bradley challenged every obstacle placed in his way. He was an ambitious student, attended UCLA, where he became a record-breaking track star and team captain. He was also a classmate of Jackie Robinson. At UCLA, Bradley joined the prestigious black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi, which helped him learn how to negotiate the complexity of a predominantly white institution. It was through this important social network, that he made friends and created relationships, which became the foundation for his life. He was elected president of the University Negro Club, which represented UCLA’s black students when racial issues flared on campus.
Tom Bradley served as a Los Angeles police officer for 21 years, reaching the rank of Lieutenant – the highest position an African-American could achieve at that time. When covert racism prevented him from advancing his career, Bradley attended Southwestern Law School at night, passed the bar the first time, and became an attorney. With his law degree in hand, he resigned from the LAPD.
While a police officer, Bradley became actively involved in politics, notably in the Democratic Minority Conference and the California Democratic Council, a progressive liberal reform group with a racially mixed membership.
In 1963, he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council in the racially mixed 10th District, supported by a multi-ethnic coalition led by African American civic and church leaders. He modeled his campaign after the campaign created by mentor and friend Mexican American L.A. City Councilman Edward Roybal in 1949. Bradley was one of three African American men elected to the Council in 1963. Nowhere else in America were blacks incorporated into the political structure to the degrees they were in Los Angeles. The victories demonstrated how an organized and united black community could overcome hostility and indifference to win political representation. Los Angeles was a place where an innovative and powerful type of political coalition was being tested.
In the 1960s, America was polarized by race and mired in increasing social and political turmoil. A conservative reaction led to the election of Sam Yorty as mayor of Los Angeles in 1961. Four years later in 1965, the Watts rebellion in South Central Los Angeles ignited a wave of large-scale unrests throughout the nation and signaled an alarm that change was needed. In 1968, Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy were assassinated within months of each other; anti-Vietnam war and black power demonstrations escalated; and more than 20,000 students in five East L.A. schools walked out, protesting racial inequality and injustice. It was in this atmosphere that two-term City Councilman Tom Bradley decided to challenge Sam Yorty in 1969 for mayor of Los Angeles. It was a long shot.