Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles

Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles

Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles

Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles

Synopsis

In her first book, Shana Bernstein reinterprets U.S. civil rights activism by looking at its roots in the interracial efforts of Mexican, African, Jewish, and Japanese Americans in mid-century Los Angeles. Expanding the frame of historical analysis beyond black/white and North/South, Bernstein reveals that meaningful domestic activism for racial equality persisted from the 1930s through the 1950s. She stresses how this coalition-building was facilitated by the cold war climate, as activists sought protection and legitimacy in this conservative era. Emphasizing the significant connections between ethno-racial communities and between the United States and world opinion, Bridges of Reform demonstrates the long-term role western cities like Los Angeles played in shaping American race relations.

Excerpt

Antonio Villaraigosa’s 2005 election as the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles since the nineteenth century was not just a victory for Latino Los Angeles. Riding into office on a wave of successful coalition building between Latino and African-American Angelenos that united voters in the pursuit of greater access and equality for the city’s minority groups, Villaraigosa’s election in many ways echoed the deliberate efforts by Jewish- and African-American organizations to propel the AfricanAmerican Tom Bradley to the L.A. city council in 1963 and to the mayor’s office ten years later. In mid-century interracial activism emerged as a powerful political force for civil rights in the city, as a diverse coalition of Mexican, African, Japanese, Jewish, and white Americans elected Edward Roybal in 1949 as the first Latino city council member of Mexican descent since 1881. The election of all three men signaled to the rest of the nation how productive interracial alliances could help transform politics from an arena of racial division and competition to one of cooperation.

Progressive Americans turned their attention to politics in the multiracial metropolis of Los Angeles during World War II and the postwar era. As the city grew—by 1950 it had become the largest city in the West and the fourth largest in the United States—what had been a largely white Protestant city in 1930 became increasingly minority, composed principally of African Americans, Mexican Americans, Japanese Americans, and Jewish Americans. Americans hopeful that cooperation rather than conflict would be a hallmark of a new era looked for signs of both the potential and the liabilities of a multiracial nation in the City of Angels.

Observers went west and trumpeted the fertile landscape for interracial political work there. In 1950, the New York office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) dispatched its African-American field secretary Lester P. Bailey to Los Angeles to assist with the local branch’s membership drive. Bailey soon sent back an optimistic report. “Of all the major cities I have worked in, I feel that Los Angeles has the greatest potentialities for NAACP. Never before have I found as many interracial and white organizations sincerely interested in the wellbeing of the Association.” Even some . . .

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