Tom Bradley

by • September 5, 2010 • BiographiesComments Off379

Tom Bradley

Tom Bradley (1917-1998), the five-term mayor of Los Angeles , and its first African-American mayor, was born to Lee and Crenner Bradley, poor sharecroppers who lived in a log cabin outside Calvert , Texas . His grandfather had been a slave. From Texas , his family moved to Arizona to pick cotton, and then to Los Angeles , in 1924, where Bradley’s father found work as a porter for the Santa Fe railroad. His mother worked as a maid. The family grew to five children before the Bradleys were divorced.

Athletics became Tom Bradley’s stepping stone to a better life. His stellar record in track and football at Los Angeles Polytechnic High School earned him an athletic scholarship to UCLA, where he became the track team’s top quarter-miler. During his junior year he took an exam to join the Los Angeles Police Dept. and placed near the top. He joined the department in 1940; the following year he married Ethel Arnold, whom he first met in church.

In 1940, the LAPD numbered 100 African-Americans among its 4,000 officers, reflecting the racial discrimination that was prevalent in Los Angeles at the time. As an African-American officer, he later told the Los Angeles Times, “you either worked Newton Street Division which has a predominantly black community, or you worked traffic downtown. You could not work with a white officer, and that continued until 1964.” His 21-year police career ended with retirement in 1961; Bradley was then a lieutenant, the highest rank ever held by an African-American in Los Angeles at the time.

Bradley attended law school at night during his last years on the police force. He began law practice upon retirement and became politically active in the Democratic Party. In 1963, in his first run for public office, he won election to the Los Angeles City Council, the first African-American ever to do so. His 10th District was centered in the multi-ethnic Crenshaw area, the majority of whose voters were white. Coalition-building was an early feature of Bradley’s political career. As a councilman, he spoke out against racial segregation within the LAPD, as well as the department’s handling of the Watts Riots in 1965.

Bradley first ran for Mayor of Los Angeles in 1969, challenging the conservative incumbent Sam Yorty. Bradley finished first in the primary, but lost in the general election after a bitter campaign in which Yorty portrayed him as a black militant and ultra leftist. Undeterred, Bradley opposed Yorty again in 1973, this time successfully, having built a powerful, citywide, racial, religious, and ethnic coalition. He won re-election an unprecedented four more times before retiring in 1993. (During this time, he failed in two attempts to become Governor of California, losing to George Deukmejian in 1982 — by fewer than 53,000 votes — and again in 1986.)

Upon retirement, Bradley joined a downtown law firm and made occasional public appearances. He died in September 1998 at the age of 80 following a heart attack.

Commenting on Bradley’s career at the time of his death, L.A. Times reporters Bill Boyarsky and Jean Merl wrote:  “A man of quiet determination, Mr. Bradley spent a lifetime bridging racial barriers and used his skills to forge extraordinary coalitions, most notably between blacks and Jews and between labor and business. He presided over a period of enormous growth leaving the gleaming downtown skyline and the start of a subway and light-rail system as the most tangible of his legacies. Mr. Bradley was also key to the racial peace that the rapidly diversifying city enjoyed during most of his five-term hold on the mayor’s office. He opened doors for minorities and women to serve on city commissions, rise in City Hall employment ranks and share in city contracts. He positioned the emerging metropolis to take its place as an international trade center and brought the city a glowing spot on the world’s stage with the Olympic Games in 1984. Ultimately he prevailed in his long struggle to bring civilian control and reform to his first full-time employed, the Los Angeles Police Department…”

– Contributed by Albert Greenstein, 1999

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