It was April 1992 and the pained look on the face of Los Angeles’ first African-American mayor, Tom Bradley, was agonizing to see. The man whose record five term reign at City Hall was marked by so many pioneering firsts for black elected officials expressed his dismay and anger that a jury with no blacks had just acquitted the four white Los Angeles Police Department officers that beat black motorist Rodney King of nearly all charges.
This display of anger was clearly out of character for the always placid, soft spoken Bradley, whose trademark style was moderation and building consensus among his coalition of white liberals, corporate businesspersons, Jewish, and non-black ethnic voters. But Bradley’s forceful assertion that an injustice was done in the acquittal captured the mood of the city’s (and indeed that of the nation’s) blacks.
WATCH ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE OF THE L.A. RIOTS COURTESY OF NBC LEARN
In the two days that followed the verdict, Los Angeles suffered the worst urban civil unrest in the nation’s history. As the death toll mounted and property damage from the burning and looting soared into the tens of millions, Bradley stood at the center of the storm.
In the post riot assessment of what went so terribly wrong, Bradley took much of the blame for variously inflaming the rioters with his criticism of the verdict and for letting the city drift into a dangerous malaise. L.A.’s poverty, unemployment, drug, murder rate, and gang violence had soared during the early 90s. During this time, the LAPD had come to be regarded as the nation’s prime poster agency for police abuse, brutality, violence and racism. The shots at Bradley were hurtful, malicious and unfair. But Bradley, as one of the nation’s most visible and best known black elected officials, took the heat.
The King beating verdict and the L.A. riots were a sad and tragic taint on the Bradley legacy. Yet, it was a legacy that, for much of the two decades he served as mayor, charted a path for how to successfully govern a major urban city and had become an earmark for the future of black politics.
That was evident from the very start of Bradley’s first venture into politics in 1969. Bradley, after a long career in the LAPD and as a city councilman, challenged then long-term Mayor Sam Yorty whose behavior towards the city’s black voters amounted to racial warfare. Bradley was the odds-on favorite to unseat Yorty. But, in a precursor of what would characterize many racially and politically charged contests in years to come, Yorty viciously race-baited Bradley and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Four years later in 1973 the political tide had changed and the city and nation’s racial polarization had eased. Bradley won a landslide victory. It marked another first for black politics. Bradley won with a majority of white votes and got modest support from corporate and banking interests. This also marked a first in that it showed that an African-American politician could appeal across varied ethnic and business lines to a broad segment of the public.
Bradley parlayed that coalition into a string of easy reelection wins and in the process did much to transform Los Angeles into a world class city through skillful use of redevelopment dollars, developing solid ties with Washington officials (he was offered a cabinet position in the Carter administration), attracting the 1984 Summer Olympics, and aggressively promoting affirmative action in hiring and contracting. This further enhanced Bradley’s luster. It proved that an African-American big city mayor could deliver the political and economic goods and transform badly under-served urban areas.
But there was also an ominous sign that race was never far from the surface in American politics. Bradley again was that cautionary sign. In 1982, he swept through California’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. In a state where Democrats held a considerable majority over Republicans, Bradley was thought to be a shoo-in to become the nation’s first African-American governor.
WATCH ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE OF RODNEY KING COURTESY OF NBC LEARN
It didn’t happen. To the shock of pollsters and pundits, Bradley lost the general election to Republican George Deukmejian. Bradley’s loss minted the term, and a fear, the “Bradley Effect.” This would be repeated over the years most pointedly during the 2008 presidential election contest between then Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama and GOP rival John McCain.
Put simply, it was the duplicity of white voters who would profess publicly to pollsters in a contest between a black and white candidate that they would back the black or that race didn’t matter, and then in the voting booth, prove it did by voting for the white candidate. Despite the dubious distinction, Bradley was still thought highly enough in Democratic Party circles to attain another milestone when Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale in 1984 seriously considered him as a potential running mate (he ultimately picked Geraldine Ferraro).
But changing political times, the L.A. riots, and a new crop of black political leaders, marked the end of the Bradley era. This, however, can’t erase the stamp of hope and accomplishment that Bradley put on urban development and racial politics in America. Bradley understood that importance. In announcing he would not seek a sixth mayoral term after the riots, Bradley still made a plea for “mutual respect, justice and tolerance.” This is a sentiment that Obama and other political leaders have repeated time and again since Bradley.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: @earlhutchinson>