The lists of activists in Los Angeles is long and varied, but over the years there has been a small cadre of men and women who have been a constant force in shaping progressive causes.
For the past couple decades, Aris Anagnos has functioned as progressive L.A.'s indulgent uncle, or at the very least, its rock-bottom discount landlord. Campaigns ranging from the nuclear freeze to Central American solidarity work have found lodging in Anagnos properties. Today, his Peace Building on West Third Street is home to a gaggle of left-leaning groups. Anagnos himself has played a key role in liberal projects ranging from human rights in Latin America to the revival of the local ADA chapter, which he headed in the mid-'90s.
No account of West L.A. liberalism would be complete without acknowledging the contributions of Rabbi Leonard Beerman, for many years the rabbi, and now rabbi emeritus, at Leo Baeck Temple. An early champion of civil rights, an eloquent and forceful critic of the Vietnam War and the nuclear buildup of the '80s, one of the very few rabbis in the U.S. who reached out early both to Jesse Jackson and to Palestinians calling for a territorial partition of Israeli-occupied territory, Beerman has often been the foremost envelope-pusher for progressive American Jews. In the past couple of years, working with his crosstown colleague Jim Lawson, Beerman has devoted his energy and his moral authority to the living-wage campaign and to establishing an ongoing organization of clergy (CLUE) that champions the causes of low-wage L.A.
Like many progressives of his generation, Bert Corona started out as a union activist in the '30s – and, like rather few progressives of his generation, as a Latino activist as well. In the subsequent decades, Corona was a founder of MAPA (the Mexican-American Political Association) and, more recently, has been a key figure in immigrant naturalization and mobilization programs. He also surfaces in the campaigns for a living wage and decent union contracts – continuing a commitment that began over 60 years ago.
For three decades, Ellen Stern Harris has been a one-woman band on behalf of consumer and environmental causes. In the '70s, she was one of L.A.'s leading consumer advocates, and wrote a consumer column in the L.A. Times. She also played a key role on the initiative campaign that established the California Coastal Commission, and she served as its first vice chair. Under the aegis of her Fund For the Environment, she is currently continuing her decadeslong campaign for cleaner ground water, agitating for the underground placement of high-power lines, and working to preserve the entire Ballona Wetlands.
In the mid-'50s, when the young Martin Luther King Jr. was cobbling together the civil rights movement, he turned to another young minister, the Rev. James Lawson, just returned from a stint with the Gandhians in India, to teach him the philosophy and politics of militant nonviolent resistance. In short order, Lawson was teaching an entire generation of civil rights pioneers how to change an evil system through nonviolent means. Over the past couple of decades, Lawson has been the pastor at Holman United Methodist Church, and a moving spirit behind nearly every local social-justice movement – most recently and notably in Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice.
The onetime wunderkind of Walter Reuther's United Auto Workers, Paul Schrade headed the Western Region of the UAW in the '60s – a decade whose movements for social justice benefited greatly from Schrade's visionary activism. He was the first union leader to devote major resources to helping Cesar Chavez's fledgling United Farm Workers. In the wake of the 1965 Watts riots, Schrade devoted UAW resources to establishing the key community-development corporations of black and Latino L.A. – respectively, the Watts Labor Community Action Council and TELACU (this was before TELACU turned into the old-boys network for Eastside politicos). He formed a group of union leaders opposed to the war in Vietnam, and was a leading figure in Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. (Standing next to Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel on election night in June 1968, Schrade was seriously wounded in the shooting that killed Kennedy.) In subsequent years, the multitalented Schrade has headed the ACLU's Workers Rights Task Force, and developed new recipes for the La Brea Bakery.
Economist Stanley K. Sheinbaum first emerged on the local political scene as the fund-raiser in chief for the Daniel Ellsberg defense in the Pentagon Papers case in 1973. In the early '70s, he became one of a group of wealthy Westsiders (along with Norman Lear, Max Palevsky, Miles Rubin and Harold Willens) who provided major funding for such liberal Democrats as George McGovern and Tom Bradley. Sheinbaum and his wife, Betty, converted their Brentwood home into a salon (often a fund-raising salon) that brought progressives from around the city, the nation and the world to meet with L.A. liberals. On the global scale, Sheinbaum headed up the first delegation of American Jewish leaders to meet with Yasir Arafat, enraging many American Jews at the time, but laying the groundwork for what eventually became the Oslo peace process – and for the gradual acceptance by U.S. Jews of a two-state solution. Locally, he headed up Tom Bradley's last police commission, which finally dumped Daryl Gates. Now in his 70s, Sheinbaum publishes New Perspective Quarterly – a journal of discussion of world social and economic problems for those who can't spend five nights a week chez Sheinbaum.
The new and improved American labor movement didn't just magically materialize when John Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO in 1995. For decades, a small number of union leaders worked to end the insularity and lethargy of the Meany-Kirkland era – and in L.A., no one worked more skillfully or with greater effect than Raoul Teilhet, the president of the California Federation of Teachers from 1968 until Parkinson's disease forced his retirement in 1993. While fully engaged in establishing worker rights for previously unprotected teachers, Teilhet also managed to find the time to build a union that reached out to Vietnam War protesters, civil rights advocates and other troublemakers whom mainstream labor characteristically shunned. He consistently prodded both the state and county federations of labor (he was a vice president of both) to make such alliances themselves, and succeeded to the point that the national AFL-CIO came to view both bodies as dangerously liberal. If John Sweeney and Miguel Contreras are today rebuilding a labor-progressive alliance, it was Teilhet and a handful of others who paved the way for them.
After a Beverly Hills boyhood marked by his heading up a youth group for Herbert Hoover, Frank Wilkinson had become by the 1940s L.A.'s most eloquent champion for public-housing programs. As a housing official in the administration of Mayor Fletcher Bowron, Wilkinson brought the city's slums to the attention of thousands of Angelenos (he actually ran tours), and administered some of the most innovative housing projects in the nation. In the early '50s, though, Wilkinson was tagged as a onetime Red by conservative politicos and the LAPD, and was subsequently blacklisted from public employment. He responded by founding a committee devoted to abolishing the McCarthyist House Un-American Activities Committee. After several decades, Wilkinson and his colleagues prevailed – but not before he served a year in jail for refusing to testify on his political beliefs and to name names to a government committee, and not before the FBI had amassed a 132,000-page file on him (which Wilkinson subsequently donated to the National Archives). Today, Wilkinson heads up the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation and the First Amendment Foundation and, in his mid-80s, lectures to thousands of law-school, college and high school students each year about the Red Scare and the ongoing battles for civil liberties.