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Thomas J. “Tom” Bradley made history in 1973 when he became the first Black mayor of Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest city. He went on to be the longest serving mayor in the city’s history, serving an unprecedented five terms. Bradley not only pioneered a historical path as the mayor, but he also cleared the way for African Americans as a scholar and an athlete at UCLA; a police officer in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD); an attorney in a private law firm; and a Los Angeles city councilman.
Each phase of Bradley’s life and professional career served as a pathway for those who followed locally and nationally. Prior to becoming an attorney, he served the city as a police officer. He again served the city upon leaving private practice becoming the 10th district city councilman and then as mayor. Apart from his own law firm, the city/people of Los Angeles was Bradley’s only other employer.
The son of Lee and Crenner Bradley—who were sharecroppers—and the grandson of former slaves, Bradley was born in Calvert, Texas, on December 29, 1917. Before moving with his family to Los Angeles, young Bradley had already experienced working in the cotton fields. Arriving in the city around 1924, the Bradley family—like many Blacks during that era—had to seek public assistance.
Even as a youth, Bradley was not one to be deterred by life’s tough problems. He attended Rosemont Elementary and Lafayette Junior High schools. By the time Bradley reached Poly High School, he excelled in two sports: football and track. After graduating in 1937, he entered UCLA on a track scholarship. To supplement his scholarship, he worked as a photographer.
In 1940, he left UCLA to attend the Los Angeles Police Academy. He scored near the top of the recruitment class and immediately became a member of the LAPD. (At that time, there were only two Black lieutenants on the force). The following year, Bradley married the former Ethel Arnold. (The marriage lasted for the rest of his life and produced two daughters: Phyllis and Lorraine). He became a sergeant six years later and was assigned to Administrative Vice and Public Affairs divisions. Early in his career as a police officer, he noticed that Blacks never seemed to reach beyond lieutenant in the LAPD hierarchy. That was the department’s glass ceiling for Blacks and he began to look elsewhere for upward mobility. The racial climate in the LAPD reflected that of the city at large. Bradley and his wife encountered racial hostility when they tried to purchase a home in Leimert Park. A White friend had to purchase it for them. They then joined the nearby First AME Church which was pastored, at that time, by Rev. H. Hartford Brookins who eventually became Bradley’s political mentor once Bradley had decided to enter politics.
Bradley began attending law school at nights (so did several Black LAPD officers). At first he went to Loyola University and then to Southwestern University School of Law where he received his L.L.B degree in 1956. Two years later, he became a police lieutenant, assigned to the Wilshire Division as the uniform patrol watch commander. After 22 years of service, Bradley retired from the LAPD and went into private practice as a managing partner in the law firm of Bradley, Burrell & Lloyd.
In 1963, Bradley decided to run for the 10th council district. It was mostly White and also had many Jewish residents. Thus began Bradley’s coalition efforts to coalesce Blacks, Whites, Jews and Latinos that would serve him well in most of his future political campaigns. There were some dissatisfaction and mixed feelings towards the incumbent, in addition, he had recently survived a recall effort. Bradley, along with Billy G. Mills (8th district), with the help of many community leaders became the first Blacks to be “elected” to the Los Angeles City Council. (Gilbert Lindsay [9th district], the only other Black on the city council, had been initially appointed, but won his first election after a brief incumbency). Due to the pioneering elections of Mills, Lindsay and Bradley, the 8th, 9th and 10th council districts respectively have elected African American councilmen and councilwomen continuously since the sixties.
Two years after he was elected came the Watts Rebellion of 1965. Though Watts was not in his district (or Lindsay’s), as a Black city councilman and a former police officer, Bradley (and Lindsay) were looked to for answers. Bradley served the 10th district for ten years, winning re-elections in 1967 and 1971. As a councilman, he was able to speak out against racial segregation with the LAPD and other departmental shortcomings that he was not able to do from inside the force.
In 1973, after a second try, Bradley defeated incumbent Mayor Sam Yorty to become Los Angeles’ 37th and its first Black mayor. Though his rival injected race into the campaign, Bradley won with 56 percent of the vote. It was an international milestone, especially since the city did not have a majority Black population, and Bradley was hailed as a unifying force and a coalition builder, terms that became his political trademarks. (His council seat went to David Cunningham).
His first term started during the nation’s energy crisis and he implemented an energy curtailment program that was so successful that it became a model for the country. Bradley also gave the city two successive balanced budgets and negotiated an increase in federal grants to assist with economic development. He was a co-founder—along with other prominent Blacks—of the Bank of Finance, reportedly the first bank wholly owned by Blacks west of the Mississippi.
Bradley did not always travel the smooth road but he always exhibited character and integrity. He walked softly but was a very effective administrator for the city. Bradley was a champion in the Black community because of his accessibility and availability. He had an open-door policy and was a member of the NAACP and the Urban League.
In 1976, Bradley was one of the five Black politicians including Supervisor (then a congresswoman) Yvonne B. Burke and Assemblyman (then the lieutenant-governor) Mervyn Dymally to be honored by the Brotherhood Crusade. The significance of the event was that though the honorees were all Democrats, the guest speaker was the top Republican in the country and the only Black U.S. Senator, Edward W. Brooke.
Tall buildings began to dot the downtown landscape as a result of Bradley progressive economic policies. Under his leadership, the city was transformed into a bustling business center and a hub of international trading. The airport, like most world renowned centers, gained a second-level and began to be appropriately called the Los Angeles International Airport.
Bradley ran for governor in 1982 and according to the surveys and exit polls, he was to be the next Governor of California. He suffered a narrow and unexpected loss, which added a new term to the nation’s political lexicon: “the Bradley effect.” One White voter expressed his feeling this way: “I liked Bradley but once in the voting booth, I just couldn’t vote for him.” (In 2008, the same scenario apparently played out in the New Hampshire primary when the surveys and exit polls had Senator Barack Obama ahead but Senator Hillary Clinton won that state). Bradley ran and lost again in 1986. So strong was his work ethic that he was at desk in city hall, bright and early, the day following his defeat.
In 1984, during his third term, he hosted the Summer Olympic Games. It was a resounding success that ended with a profit margin for the city. During that same year, Bradley supported Vice President Walter Mondale in his run for president instead of Rev. Jesse Jackson. It was a very pragmatic decision for Bradley; Mondale eventually got the Democratic nomination and Bradley was a serious contender for the vice presidency.
He was elected to two more terms as mayor in 1985 and in 1989. Near the end of his final term, the city flared up in one of the worst civil unrests in the nation. (It seemed like déjà vu—a replay of the Watts Revolt in 1965, just after he was first elected to the city council). In 1992, the city erupted after four White police officers were acquitted of beating a Black motorist, Rodney King, after the incident had been videotaped and replayed on television all over the world. Bradley was incensed, stating that the jury was “telling us we didn’t see what we saw.”
Bradley did not seek a sixth term; some of his Westside supporters had lost their council re-election bids in addition, he seemed to have barely squeaked by in the previous election. After city hall, Bradley joined a prestigious law firm specializing in international trade issues. He was felled by a heart attack in 1996, and though he survived, he never really fully recovered and passed away on September 29, 1998.
The gratitude the city has shown Bradley for his services for over 50 years is exemplified by the tributes that have been bestowed on him including the Tom Bradley International Terminal at the Los Angeles International Airport, the Tom Bradley Legacy Foundation at UCLA and the Tom Bradley Elementary School. Efforts are presently on the way to honor Bradley with a U.S. postage stamp. City Council member Bernard Parks, who followed Bradley as a police officer and a city councilmember, made the proposal to the city council. He said, “Mayor Bradley’s climb from LAPD to member of the city council and eventually mayor shows a dedication and service to the city that cannot be matched.”
“Legends” is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlight the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.