PBS documentary shows how Mayor Tom Bradley changed L.A.


Tom Bradley became Los Angeles’ first African-American mayor in 1973 by bringing together a multiracial coalition of Blacks, Jews, white liberals and Latinos in the years after the Watts Riots. He opened City Hall to people of all racial backgrounds, brought the Olympic Games to the city (again), and fought a racist and recalcitrant police department. 

And, as a new PBS documentary, “Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race,” explains, Bradley laid the groundwork for President Barack Obama to take the White House in 2008.   

The two filmmakers, Lyn Goldfarb and Alison Sotomayor, screened their work Aug. 10  at CSU Los Angeles. The film was followed by a panel discussion on Bradley and race relations that included Lorraine Bradley, the eldest of the late mayor’s three daughters; Rep. Judy Chu of the San Gabriel Valley; Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas; former L.A. County Supervisor and City Councilmember Zev Yaroslavsky; and Maria Elena Durazo, the general vice president for immigration, civil rights and diversity at Unite Here. Radio host Warren Olney of KCRW moderated. 

“The most vexing issue in American society is the issue of race. It is persistent, and it defines significantly Tom Bradley’s tenure,” Ridley-Thomas said. 

The son of a sharecropper and the grandson of a slave, Bradley was raised in a tradition of African-American excellence in Los Angeles. As a sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department — the highest rank an African-American could achieve at the time — Bradley resisted a violent police culture. 

As a city councilmember, he became a vocal critic of Police Chief William H. Parker and his alliance with Mayor Sam Yorty. 

After Yorty won re-election against Bradley in 1969 by appealing to racist tropes, Bradley spent four years building a coalition with Latino labor groups and Jews on the Westside and in the South San Fernando Valley, ultimately winning in a landslide in 1973. He served five terms and remains the longest-serving mayor in Los Angeles history. 

“The coalition never really frayed. He was extraordinarily respected in the Jewish community, and he earned that respect over a long period of time,” Yaroslavsky said during the panel discussion. “Ultimately, he had that respect in virtually every part of the city.”

Although Bradley, known for his quiet and resolute manner, ultimately left office after watching the city burst into flames during the 1992 Rodney King Riots — the result of continued police brutality and economic oppression in Los Angeles’ African-American communities — Bradley’s legacy is evident in multiracial coalitions across the city, state and country, according to the documentary.

In addition to highlighting how they, personally, had benefited from Bradley’s legacy, the panelists highlighted the similarities between unrest in African-American and minority communities in 1992 and in the past year.

“We are very fortunate in Los Angeles to have a whole generation of multiethnic leaders who believe in group coalition building, who believe that that is the best way to address our issues,” Durazo said. “We have got to keep that going, but we have to expect more, as well. We have to demand more and expect more. We can’t hold off another 1992 rebellion unless we really use that strength and that coalition to address the poverty and the other issues of racism in our community.”

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