A Local Civil Rights Leader: Mayor Tom Bradley

Posted by Mary Hendra on August 26, 2014

Mayor Tom Bradley. His name is given to a number of buildings around the city – the international terminal at LAX being perhaps the most prominent. But, did you know…

  • Bradley was the son of sharecroppers and the grandson of slaves.
  • Bradley challenged racial expectations even in high school: running for and winning student body president of a primarily white student body at Los Angeles High School.
  • Bradley was the president of UCLA’s Negro Club and one of about 55 African American students on the campus of about 4,000. One of Bradley’s classmates and friends was another barrier breaker, baseball giant Jackie Robinson.
  • Bradley moved his family in 1950 into the all-white, Los Angeles neighborhood of Leimert Park in order to integrate the community.
  • Bradley’s election came with the participation of volunteers and allies across various ethnic backgrounds, a strategy he learned from L.A. City Councilman Edward Roybal, and which would become a model for Barack Obama.

Lyn Goldfarb, Lorraine Bradley, and Alison Sotomayor speak to educators at Race and Membership seminar, July 2014. Lyn Goldfarb, Lorraine Bradley, and Alison Sotomayor speak to educators at Race and Membership seminar, July 2014.


Filmmakers Lyn Goldfarb and Alison Sotomayor are producing two documentaries about Mayor Tom Bradley – Tom Bradley’s Impossible Dream for educators, with accompanying curricula for 11thand 12th grade, and Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race for a national public television audience in 2015. Alison, Lyn, and the eldest daughter of Tom Bradley, Lorraine Bradley, joined our Race and Membership seminar earlier this summer to share the film with educators.


Facing History: Why did you decide to focus an entire film – two films – on Mayor Tom Bradley?

Bradley at podium Mayor Tom Bradley, courtesy of The Tom Bradley Legacy Foundation at UCLA

We first met on the production of the 2006 feature-length film, THE NEW LOS ANGELES, produced and directed by Lyn Goldfarb and associate produced and researched by Alison Sotomayor. During the research phase of the documentary, we discovered that Tom Bradley was the first African American mayor elected in a major U.S. city with an overwhelmingly white population, and we were shocked that there wasn’t either a documentary or a scholarly biography about Tom Bradley. We also realized the transformation of Los Angeles from a conservative, provincial city to one of the most diversified and inclusive cities in the world began with Tom Bradley when he was elected mayor in 1973.

As mayor, Tom Bradley built the downtown skyline, revitalized the financial and business districts, reformed City Hall, opened high level jobs and city commissions to women and minorities, and brought the city to international fame with the successful 1984 Summer Olympics – the first-ever profitable Games. He also enacted environmental reforms, powerful anti-apartheid business practices, and ordinances prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians, and people with AIDS. Before he left office in 1993, he prevailed in his long struggle to bring civilian control and reform to the LAPD.

Initially, Bradley’s story in THE NEW LOS ANGELES was to be a few minutes in length. After understanding his impact locally and nationally, we extended his story to 7 minutes in the film. At the time, we were concerned that his story was not being taught in schools. His accomplishments, his historic firsts, his legacy – had all been nearly forgotten.

Several years went by and Bradley’s story was still not being told in a substantial way. We knew we were the ones to tell it.

The question of how to build bridges over racial divisions is alive and potent. Because Los Angeles represents a distinctive, significant western weave of the American racial tapestry, it is essential to bring the Bradley story into the national discussion of race.


The power of coalitions is striking both in the film, and in the making of this film. What was it about Los Angeles that enabled Bradley to create a winning coalition?

It is actually quite historic. Bradley’s election signified the creation of the most powerful and effective multiracial coalition in American urban history.

In Los Angeles, ALL minority groups, including Jews and white liberals, were excluded from the civic arena. Unlike older cities such as New York City and Chicago where party organizations allowed some access for minorities, Los Angeles had a closed political system with virtually no minority representation. As a result, these disenfranchised groups joined in opposition to a powerful, entrenched conservative leadership. Within these groups, there were trusting relationships among leaders who had been active in civil rights and other progressive causes. And yet, coalition building and maintenance required constant work. There were always pressures threatening to split the coalition – segregated schools and busing, environmental and development issues. Constant negotiation and renegotiation were essential elements of the coalition process that came to define Los Angeles politics.


Mayor Tom Bradley with staff, courtesy of The Tom Bradley Legacy Foundation at UCLA Mayor Tom Bradley with staff, courtesy of The Tom Bradley Legacy Foundation at UCLA

What about Mayor Tom Bradley himself contributed to his ability to appeal to people across ethnic backgrounds?

It stems back to his years at UCLA, a majority white university where he learned to navigate in black and white worlds, and continued in the 1950’s when he was a sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department, assigned to the public information/community relations division. He was responsible for meeting with over 60 organizations throughout the city that focused on issues of race and human relations. He made speeches at various high schools and colleges to explain the role and the activity of the LAPD, and had an opportunity to work with and become familiar with many city and county departments and with the inside operation of city government.

Bradley’s chief administrative assistant of twenty years, Wanda Moore, remarked that Bradley decided to run for Los Angeles mayor again in 1973, making sure that he got out and met "all the people of Los Angeles because he wanted them to be comfortable with him, not afraid of him.” Bradley built himself as a unifier of an ethnically diverse city and eventually became the most popular politician in California among voters of all parties.

You’ve drawn specific parallels between Tom Bradley and Barack Obama. What are the parallels you see? In what ways did Mayor Tom Bradley lay the foundation for President Barack Obama?

In exploring the life and career of Tom Bradley, we go back to a time when racial segregation was legal and lynchings were widespread in the south where he was born. Few opportunities for advancement existed for African Americans – no matter their talent and ability. While Bradley lived to see the end of legal segregation and the passage of the great civil rights acts of the 1960s, his personality and style were inevitably shaped by the world in which he grew up. His careful demeanor, self-control, and ability to reassure whites that he was not threatening can only be understood in this historical context.

In Barack Obama’s life story, we witness the impact of growing up in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, when legal integration was taken for granted, yet subtle and not-so-subtle forms of racism persist.

When Tom Bradley was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1973, his coalition included African Americans, Jews, white liberals, Mexican Americans and Asian Americans. Bradley’s victory came at a time when people had given up hope for coalitions, and when he won, it opened up a new model for race relations in California.

The role of Obama as bridge builder can be illuminated by understanding how Bradley walked the path years before and the tradeoffs that went with that role. This can help avoid treating Obama as a unique, historical phenomenon. And this bridge role reveals a great deal about race, the gulfs that separate people, and the paths to mutual understanding.

Obama and Bradley are also tied together by the fear that some will reduce the whole black community to the style and personalities of these “firsts.” Because they crossed bridges, Bradley and Obama became something beyond their own communities. By offering a bridge for people to cross over, one would hope that this would lead to a deeper understanding of the whole community, not just of a representative who is particularly able to reassure.


What were some of the most surprising discoveries you made about Bradley in the research for this film?

We were surprised to find out that at a very young age Tom Bradley was intentionally and consistently making decisions and choices in order to rise up from poverty and become a success. He was determined and ambitious, and built networks and relationships throughout his life that would help him launch his career in politics.

We were surprised to learn that Mexican American politician Edward Roybal created the first multiethnic coalition during his campaign for Los Angeles City Council in 1949, and that Tom Bradley, while a lieutenant on the LAPD, walked precincts for Roybal and learned from that. Roybal, who would later become a congressman and Bradley’s political mentor, worked with Bradley on increasing minority representation on the L.A. City Council and school board, as well as fighting against police brutality and misconduct in minority communities.

Bradley LAPD Young Tom Bradley in LAPD, courtesy of California African American Museum

We were surprised to find out how Tom Bradley, a true “law and order man”, survived for 21 years in an authoritarian, paramilitary police department under the rule of Chief William Parker and how he became known throughout the city through his work in the LAPD’s community relations department. Not only did Bradley meet with dozens of community organizations that dealt with issues of race relations, but he also wrote a weekly California Eagle column, Police EyeView, that discussed and explained the activities of the LAPD. We were also surprised how he was able to go to law school at night and still be promoted simultaneously – this at a time when very few minorities held high-ranking positions in the LAPD.


You have had a strong focus on schools and educators from the beginning of this project. What do you hope students will learn from Bradley’s story?

  • We hope to engage youth in dialogue about racial and ethnic tolerance, long-term relationship-building and diversity. In this way, students may come to understand what role race plays in their identity, how to better prepare themselves in reacting to and confronting issues about race, and how to interact productively with students of other racial backgrounds.
  • We hope to create an opportunity for youth to learn about the process of coalition building, and how multi-ethnic coalitions helped shape Los Angeles and enabled people of all ethnicities and races to work together.
  • We hope to educate and build leadership skills of young people of all ethnicities and nationalities to better address community issues in communities of color.
  • We hope to teach students what it takes to become a successful leader and what it takes to run a city government.
  • We hope to inspire students through Tom Bradley’s story, a classic story of determination against seemingly insurmountable odds; the story of a black man who fought poverty, prejudice and bigotry, and rose to become Los Angeles’ greatest mayor, bridging racial divides. We hope this story may spark young people to think: If he can do it, maybe I can do it, too.

To find out more about TOM BRADLEY’S IMPOSSIBLE DREAM, please visit: www.mayortombradley.com

Lyn Goldfarb, Lorraine Bradley, and Alison Sotomayor Lyn Goldfarb, Lorraine Bradley, and Alison Sotomayor

Lyn Goldfarb is an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, specializing in historical and social issue documentaries, with 16 documentaries broadcast on primetime national PBS and major cable. Her work has been awarded nearly every major award in television, and have been exhibited in film festivals worldwide.

Alison Sotomayor is a longtime, Emmy award-winning producer of television and independent documentaries. She was a former staff producer of the critically acclaimed news and public affairs show Life and Times on KCET Public Television for 10 years, and for the past 14 years, has produced short films on media advocacy, equality and representation for the local and national Latino media community.

Topics: Civil Rights Movement, Los Angeles, Upstander

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