Tom Bradley — whom Raphael Sonenshein, author of the 1993 book Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles, called “The most important political figure in Los Angeles in the last three decades” — made history in 1973 by becoming the first African-American mayor of a major American city with a majority white population. (See Part 1 here.)
But the story of Bradley’s record-breaking five mayoral terms and central role in L.A.’s transformation to world-class status — unknown to most Angelenos under the age of 35 — is far more than an overdue bit of historical housekeeping. Just as Bob Dylan wouldn’t be possible without Woody Guthrie, or Ronald Reagan without Barry Goldwater, the idea of a direct line from Tom Bradley to Barack Obama can give us perspective on the contemporary political scene.
Oscar-nominated director Lyn Goldfarb and Emmy-winning producer Alison Sotomayor intend to explore this in their forthcoming documentary Bridging The Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race. That film will also serve as the locus for a multimedia project, including a 30-minute video and study guide for middle and high school curricula; a filmed oral history archive of interviews available for public use upon release of the film; an interactive website for sharing Bradley stories online and at story stations throughout the city; an archive of interviews filmed for the documentary and video; a web-based platform with video shorts on Bradley’s life and legacy; and a training program providing young people with hands on experience in video research, production and editing.
“I grew up in the old, conservative Los Angeles, and was away at college when Tom Bradley was elected,” Goldfarb explains. “But I remember those years so clearly. These were years of anger, frustration and fear, but it was also an era when we felt that we had to change the world as we knew it. And that’s what Tom Bradley did. As a documentary filmmaker, I wanted to understand how my city changed — and to understand the man who spearheaded that transformation. Seven years ago, I began researching my documentary The New Los Angeles and I realized that Tom Bradley’s first run for Mayor signaled the beginning of a new, progressive and inclusive Los Angeles. And only through telling this story would we understand who we are and how we got to where are today.”
Sotomayor adds, “Few recognize that Bradley’s historic multi-ethnic coalition of African-Americans, Latinos, Jews and white liberals redefined Los Angeles, and in turn, transformed the national dialogue about race. And as we will uncover in the film, we will make the connection between Bradley’s extraordinary coalition and the election, decades later, of our nation’s first black president.”
Call it the zeitgeist. Along with Goldfarb and Sotomayor, but others, including two foundations, are also building awareness of the mayor and his accomplishments.
The Tom Bradley Legacy Foundation, headquartered at UCLA and chaired by former Bradley chief of staff and deputy mayor Maury Weiner, is the repository of a select portion of the official Tom Bradley papers and memorabilia, with the rest in storage at the UCLA library. In addition, the foundation sponsors educational projects such as a Green Technology Institute, which collaborates with the Audubon Center at Debs Park to equip youths “with the tools to help improve their own awareness and facility with technology and environmental survival.”
The Tom and Ethel Bradley Foundation, launched in 2004 with “Civility” as its watchword and Board Chair Lorraine Bradley and president/CEO Gregory Franks in charge, participates in a range of community-related activities. Projects have included Los Angeles Mediation Network, Volunteers of America, Streetology Project of Say Yes Inc., Turning Point Magazine‘s ‘Financial Literacy Conference for Youth, The Young Center’s California Youth Think Tank at USC and Junior Achievement of Southern California. Earlier this year the Head Start program for the County of San Bernardino commissioned the Foundation to train staff to assist 6000 parents in managing their family budgets.
Perhaps one reason for Bradley’s relative obscurity, besides our fleeting attention span, was his indifference and sometimes dismissive attitude towards the press. But the terrific veteran Daily News City Hall reporter Rick Orlov, sometimes the recipient of the mayor’s cold shoulder, understood a deeper truth: “I couldn’t break through Tom Bradley’s exterior. He didn’t allow the media to invade his personal life and we were never able to gain access into his inner-circle of advisors. He was always conscious that we were reporters, so his main goal was to make sure his message got across to the public through us.”
Those who did get close to Tom Bradley the man have enough stories and praises to keep Goldfarb and Sotomayor busy indefinitely. Here are a few:
BERNARD PARKS, L.A. City Councilmember and former LAPD chief: “There is no other employee in the city’s history that has had as great an impact for as many years as Tom Bradley. He would very often personally call individuals to discuss issues he had an interest in. It was not unusual to get a phone call, and the voice on the other end would merely say ‘This is Tom Bradley,’ and he’d proceed to ask very detailed questions. He never spoke using notes or delivered remarks from a prepared text. A couple members of his staff once told me about a speech he gave before a luncheon at the Bonaventure Hotel. He walked in and delivered his entire speech before realizing he had walked into the wrong room. Unfazed, he proceeded to the right room, and delivered the speech again, nearly word-for-word.”
ANTON CALLEIA, who worked for Bradley for nearly 24 years, including two decades as budget director and liaison with the City Council: “Tom Bradley believed he was a trustee for the people of Los Angeles and owed them his best judgment–which was not always the most popular. He created the environment for a historic period of cooperation between the private and public sectors.”
BEE LAVERY, Bradley’s chief of protocol: “He was a rock star. I remember being in Athens with him, everybody coming down the path would stop and talk to him and say, ‘Aren’t you Tom Bradley?'”
GARY HOROWITZ, longtime friend and advisor: “In the ’69 campaign Yorty’s red-baiting of an ex-communist on Tom’s staff motivated Dorothy Healy, who had been the head of the Communist Party in Los Angeles, to reveal to me that she had been approached by Yorty in 1940 soliciting the support of the party for his plan to run for mayor. She offered to provide
evidence of this request so we could retaliate against Yorty.” Tom’s reaction: “If I have to red-bait to win then we’ll lose because I won’t do that.”
BOBBY ADAMS, Bradley’s Chief of Detail: “During both his victory and inaugural speech in 1973, we made sure he wore a bullet-proof vest. He had threats made on his life all the time. We received about 300 suspicious letters in 10 years. But during all the years I worked for him, the mayor never showed fear.”
FELIX BELL, retired LAPD officer and member of Bradley’s Vice Squad in 1951: “Tom always treated every individual as a person. He would arrest people, convict them, and then the people would be a friend of his. That was Tom for you.”
JOHN MACK, LA Urban League President under Mayor Bradley: “He never lost the common touch. He may have walked with Kings and Queens and Heads of State, but he always remembered who he was.”
RAPHAEL SONENSHEIN, “There was steel in the man, despite his quiet demeanor. He saved the 1984 Olympics, because when the IOC tried to prevent Los Angeles from protecting itself from financial loss in hosting the games, he threatened to back out of the bid, and the IOC gave in.”
Bradley’s mayoralty faltered in its later years, but his legacy as a public figure and as a man is powerful and illuminating. At a time when our political dialogue is getting more and more “fact-free” (Fox News, Sarah Palin, and yes, Alan Grayson’s “Taliban Dan” ad), we need to understand more than ever how Tom Bradley — and his crew — “bridged the divide.”
Michael Sigman is a writer/ editor, media consultant and the president of Major Songs, a music publishing company.
Crossposted from Huffington Post with the author’s permission.