By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
1945: An African-American couple, Anna and Henry Laws, was fined and imprisoned for violating a restrictive covenant on their small home on East 92nd Street. (Restrictive covenants were legally binding clauses in land deeds that forbade the transfer of property to non-whites, and sometimes to Jews as well.) During the '40s, African-Americans accounted for only 7 percent of Los Angeles' population, but filed 46 percent of all applications for the city's tiny inventory of government-subsidized public housing. Growing awareness of these racist restrictive covenants coincided with a severe postwar housing shortage. The Laws case triggered a grassroots crusade for civil rights and better housing. This movement ultimately prevailed in the courts (the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the covenants in 1948) and in the neighborhoods, where a vibrant movement sought to promote affordable public housing for African-Americans, Latinos and other working-class residents of the city.
A racist politics was revived during the war years when reactionary forces launched fear campaigns against Japanese- and Mexican-Americans, and anti-communist crusades were used to undermine the political organizations and progressive reforms that had emerged during the '30s. But groups like Nisei Progressives and the Civil Rights Congress, as well as Charlotta Bass' newspaper The Eagle, promoted racial liberalism and mobilized communities for progressive change. A new wave of organizing in Mexican-American communities led to the election in 1949 of Edward Roybal, the City Council's first Latino member since the 19th century. In May 1948, 31,000 people jammed into Gilmore Stadium to hear a speech by Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace. As part of this campaign, Los Angeles radical Harry Hay, a union organizer and Communist, developed the idea for a gay campaign organization, "Bachelors for Wallace." Though this group never got off the ground, Hay subsequently formed the Los Angeles--based Mattachine society, the nation's first modern gay-rights organization.
There was perhaps no more compelling figure of Progressive L.A. during the '40s than Carey McWilliams. A journalist, author, housing commissioner and political activist, McWilliams effectively chronicled and captured the moods and contradictions of prewar and postwar Los Angeles. He became the leading interpreter of the region as an incubator of progressive movements and ideas, while also chronicling economic injustice and sprawling development.
1958: As the McCarthyite wave subsided, L.A. liberals formulated a new agenda, including a commitment to higher education for all Californians, fair housing opportunities, a renewal of civil rights and civil liberties, and new forays into land-use and environmental planning. In 1958, Democrats won control of the governor's office and the legislature, and for the first time since the '30s, progressive reforms were enacted.
Even in the midst of the McCarthyite attack on progressives, the changing face of Los Angeles continued to inspire new collaborations, new constituencies and new movements. The independently produced film Salt of the Earth, which chronicled the real-life strike of Latino and Anglo mine workers in New Mexico, represented one of several alternatives to the increasingly saccharine cultural fare that dominated Hollywood and other forms of mass culture. In '50s L.A., these alternatives also included Will Geer's theatrical productions at his playhouse in Topanga Canyon, the cultural scene along Central Avenue, the mix of jazz recitals and poetry readings that began to occur in places like Venice and Echo Park, and a vibrant mural movement, especially in Latino neighborhoods.
Throughout the '50s, portions of the Latino community waged protracted battles against the redevelopment of Bunker Hill and Chavez Ravine. Both of these working-class Latino communities were bulldozed to make way for new downtown cultural centers and corporate offices, as well as Dodger Stadium. Despite such defeats, these struggles helped forge a new Latino activism.
Activist Dorothy Healey's career spanned two generations of local progressive involvement. As a teenager and Communist Party member in 1933, Healey had helped organize Mexican and Japanese berry pickers in El Monte. As head of the L.A. branch of the Communist Party after 1946, she helped build bridges between unions, civil rights movements, and progressive coalitions. Her subsequent disenchantment with Soviet actions such as the invasion of Prague in 1968 led to her to quit the party. However, she continued her political activism and became one of the key '30s Old Left activists who helped mentor the '60s generation of New Leftists. Like Upton Sinclair and Carey McWilliams before her, she provided a link across political generations.
Amid rising affluence, persistent poverty and a war that threatened to tear the country apart, the 1960s were a period of tumultuous change. Ruben Salazar, an ad salesman turned L.A. Times reporter and columnist and TV news director, personified that change. Initially skeptical of people who identified themselves politically as Mexican-American, Salazar began to adopt a more anti-establishment perspective. He became the point of connection between a new generation of "brown power" activists and the older generation of civil rights groups and Roybalistas. All these activists finally came together on August 29, 1970, when 25,000 people participated in the Chicano Moratorium for civil rights and against the Vietnam War - but the demonstration ended in tragedy when Salazar was struck and killed by a tear-gas projectile fired by a sheriff's deputy into the cafe to which Salazar had repaired. Salazar's odyssey came to symbolize, like so much else during the '60s, the magnified hopes and deferred dreams of Progressive L.A.
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