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From Liberty Hill to the Living Wage 

A brief history of Progressive Los Angeles

Wednesday, Sep 30 1998
Twentieth-century Los Angeles has two distinct histories. There's the top-down tale: a story of the corporate and political elites seeking to mold the city around their agenda of unregulated development, mindless boosterism, cheap labor, exploited immigrants and endless sprawl. But there's a bottom-up history as well: a story of the reformers and radicals who offered an alternative vision of economic and social justice, and an agenda of reforming workplace conditions, ending racial and gender discrimination, creating a healthier environment and making communities more livable. What follows is a decade-by-decade look at that bottom-up history - a history that at different times has also shaped the social, economic and political dynamics of L.A., and improved the daily life of Angelenos.


1913: Iron-molder and union activist Dan Grayson, fresh from beating charges of violating an anti-picketing ordinance, runs successfully for governor on the Socialist Party ticket. Once in office he signs a law guaranteeing jobs for all wage earners . . .

Sound far-fetched? This fictional election takes place in From Dusk to Dawn, a silent film that drew large audiences when it first opened at a Socialist movie hall on Broadway in downtown L.A. With a cast of over 10,000, From Dusk to Dawn realistically depicted the era's poverty-stricken slums, the brutality of dangerous workplaces, and the violence used by companies and local police to destroy union organizing.

The nationwide popularity of From Dusk to Dawn was at least partly due to its close reflection of the time's political realities and popular aspirations. In fact, labor lawyer and Socialist leader Job Harriman, who makes a cameo appearance in the film, was nearly elected mayor of Los Angeles just two years earlier on a platform that included mandating union contracts in L.A. workplaces where a majority of workers desired them, a water- and land-use policy that advocated growth boundaries and livable cities, and a "good government" program that sought to rid Los Angeles of its corruption. At the time, these ideas were considered radical, but over the next 70 years many of them were incorporated into our political mainstream.


1923: In defense of striking dockworkers, novelist and journalist Upton Sinclair joined a rally on San Pedro's Liberty Hill and tried to read from the Bill of Rights. He was promptly arrested, along with hundreds of others, and held incommunicado for 18 hours. The ensuing scandal led to the arrest of the chief of police and the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

In Los Angeles history, the '20s have been typically viewed as a time of reaction - overt racism against Asians and Mexicans, the triumph of the big studios in Hollywood, the oil boom and the environmental degradation that went with it, and the ongoing campaign to make Los Angeles a safe haven for cheap labor. But the decade also witnessed the emergence of a progressive urban environmentalism, a developing women's movement and a flourishing intellectual life. Political radicals and literary bohemians formed circles in places such as Pasadena, Venice, on the Eagle Rock campus of Occidental College, in Boyle Heights, in the back room at Musso & Frank in Hollywood, and in Jake Zeitlin's downtown bookstore, At the Sign of the Grasshopper. The late '20s also saw a major campaign for large-scale development of parks and limits on urban sprawl, an attempt to counter the successful drive by developers and other commercial interests to "penetrate the wild virgin areas" of the region, as the L.A. Times put it, and make Los Angeles into a permanently expanding - and fragmented - metropolis.


1934: In the depths of the Depression, Upton Sinclair launched a campaign for governor around a simple slogan: "End Poverty in California (EPIC)." Sinclair's genius was his ability to bring together a broad spectrum of radicals, progressives and moderates around a common vision and a concrete reform agenda - in particular, "production for use" cooperatives for jobless workers and farmers. He won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, shocking the political establishment and attracting more primary votes than any candidate in the party's history. More than two-thirds of those votes came from Southern California. Big business - L.A. big business in particular - then mobilized an extraordinary media campaign that ended in Sinclair's defeat in November. Still, such soon-to-be-notable local progressives as Jerry Voorhis and Augustus Hawkins cut their teeth on the EPIC campaign.

Amid the social and economic chaos of the Depression, the political sparks ignited by the EPIC soon spread across the entire L.A. political landscape. Thirties L.A. was home to a flourishing cooperative movement, a revived labor movement led by the new Congress of Industrial Organizations and its Labor Non-Partisan League, and a cultural renaissance of writers, artists, photographers and independent filmmakers exploring a range of social themes. Los Angeles workers joined unions in unprecedented numbers, engaging in civil disobedience and even general strikes. Community groups blocked landlords and police from evicting unemployed renters. Seniors mobilized around the Townsend Plan, initiated by a charismatic and eccentric dentist in Long Beach in 1933, which helped push Congress and the Roosevelt administration to pass the Social Security Act. The city's labor, progressive and radical organizations formed the United Organization for Progressive Political Action, and three of its candidates won election to the City Council. Though LAPD "anti-subversive" Captain "Red" Hynes sent his police to close the borders against the "immigrant" Okies and Arkies, and local right-wing politicos used racial fears to divide the voters, a progressive coalition nevertheless continued to grow in strength. In 1938, it played a key role in the successful mayoral campaign of Fletcher Bowron, a Superior Court judge whom the Times labeled an "honest reformer who has become the unwitting dupe of the CIO, the Communists and certain crackpot reformers."

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