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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,555

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This is the grave of Tom Bradley.

Born in 1917 in Calvert, Texas, Bradley grew up super poor. His family were sharecroppers, still working the cotton. They moved like a lot of African Americans during the Great Migration, but rather than go to the factories of the North, then went west to Arizona. Initially, they were working cotton there too. But soon they ended up in Los Angeles. It’s not like things were great there either. But his father got a job as a railroad porter and his mother as a maid. This is a pretty typical story of the Black experience in these years.

The family valued education for their kids and Tom was very good at it. He was a star student and a great athlete too, elected to honors societies while being a superb track and football player. He then went to UCLA on an athletic scholarship, although I don’t think he played a whole lot there. Instead, he started working and Jimmy Durante (of all damn people) hired him as a personal photographer for awhile.

In 1940, Bradley joined the Los Angeles Police Department. Given the LAPD’s rather, uh, checkered history of racism, this was a bit of an odd decision. But they hired a few Black officers for menial tasks and to patrol Black neighborhoods, with no chance of advancement and no respect from white officers or the administration. But about 10 percent of the LAPD was African American in these years, so it wasn’t unknown to do this. Anyway, Bradley wasn’t going to put up with that for long. He had better opportunities than that. So while still on the force, he started attending Southwestern Law School.

Not surprisingly, Bradley saw the law as a path toward politics. He got involved on the local level to support Adlai Stevenson’s campaigns in the 50s. He was one of the only Black people involved in mostly Jewish organizations in the city and that created long-term coalitional politics that would help him for decades. That would actually help define Bradley’s politics in a different way. Bradley would become a candidate of the Black middle class and white and Latino respectability politics. That would put him at odds with the Black working class coalition of Jesse Unruh and Bradley would go far in defining himself against those politics.

Bradley first ran for office in 1961, when he became a member of the City Council. He was in fact the first Black member of the Council, so that was a big deal in LA political history. He was also 45 years old, so while he was rising and ambitious, he wasn’t that young. He left the police force around this time as well and dedicated himself full time toward politics. He became a steady moderate voice of the Council over the next eight years at a volatile time. He was not going to speak out in favor of the people in Watts rioting or in favor of the Black Panthers or Angela Davis. He was going to appeal to the best in white liberals in trying to create a politics of understanding. Whether that position was cynical or truly held, it did serve him well in rising within the LA political establishment.

In 1969, Bradley decided to challenge Sam Yorty as mayor. Yorty was awful, a right-wing Democrat. Bradley could thus appeal to Black voters who wanted one of their own in office while also appealing to the white liberals at the core of his base. But Yorty race-baited his way into another term, basically saying that electing Bradley was like electing Angela Davis. Still, Bradley was encouraged by his performance and took Yorty on again in 73, this time successfully.

Bradley would serve five terms as mayor, becoming a real political institution. It wasn’t always easy. The LAPD was the biggest problem. Long a super racist and corrupt institution, it didn’t get better under Chief Daryl Gates, who was the most prominent opponent of Bradley’s administration. The mayor’s office and LAPD were basically at war for years, with Bradley routinely cutting the police budget. This became the era of using the cops to shuffle Black people into the prison system for drug offenses in the War on Drugs, which was a complete failure. Bradley was hardly pro-drug. But he was a liberal, was concerned about police violence, and did not see the point of this kind of policing. Gates would remain in power until after the Rodney King riots, which did not surprise Bradley given his long-time enemy’s thuggery.

Bradley’s big feather in his cap was the 1984 Olympics, which despite the Soviet boycott, went off mostly without a hitch. He was a pro-business liberal and had close ties to the corporate community, who were more or less OK with his brand of liberalism since they had an open door to his office. He pushed for public transportation projects in that car city and was behind the creation of the light rail system in that series. Jimmy Carter had a lot of interest in offering Bradley a Cabinet position, but really, why would someone give up being the mayor of America’s #2 or #3 city (depending on how you think of Chicago) to be Secretary of Transportation or something?

Now, Bradley did have higher ambitions. He ran for governor twice as the Democratic nominee, in 1982 and 1986, but was defeated by George Deukmejian. At the very least, the 82 election swung on racism. A lot of California whites simply were not going to vote for the Black mayor of LA and so they didn’t. He also was considered as Mondale’s VP candidate in 84, though that of course went to Geraldine Ferraro. The LA riots hurt Bradley almost as much as they did Gates and so he decided not to run for a sixth term in 1993. Richard Riordan took over and honestly there wasn’t that much difference on a lot of issues, even though he was a Republican. And really, 20 years is long enough.

Bradley really didn’t have that much of a retirement in good health. He had a heart attack in 1996 that required a major bypass operation. Then he had a stroke and couldn’t much speak after that. He died in 1998, at the age of 80.

Tom Bradley is buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, California.

If you would like this series to visit other major American mayors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Richard Daley is in Chicago and the odious Frank Rizzo is in Cheltenham Township, Pennsylvania. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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