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A community's urban journey

L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles From the Great Depression to the Present, Josh Sides, University of California Press: 288 pp., $39.95

September 05, 2004|Bill Boyarsky | Bill Boyarsky, a former Times city editor, columnist and political reporter, is writing a book on the late political leader Jesse M. Unruh and the growth of California after World War II.

I was raised an anti-Communist, a child of the Cold War. A friend broke off a teenage correspondence when I criticized her for demonstrating against the execution of the Rosenbergs, convicted spies for the Soviet Union. When I was a young reporter, Dorothy Healey, a famed local Communist Party leader, told me her recollections of former Mayor Sam Yorty's party ties. I didn't trust her enough to use them.

I got smarter -- or at least less stupid -- when I became friends in the 1970s with Sam Kushner, the labor reporter for the People's World, the Communist Party newspaper. Sam and I had many lunches. He loved a good lunch at the expense of the anti-union Chandler family, which then owned The Times. He told me of picket lines and demonstrations. One day, I met him at his office in a dingy building downtown, where a few elderly men toiled away at desks. "Welcome," Sam said, "to the international Communist conspiracy." I saw him as a social reformer rather than a Russian spy. He taught me that the party was more complex than the organization once vilified by Sen. Joe McCarthy.

These memories were revived by an exceptional book, "L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles From the Great Depression to the Present," by Josh Sides, an assistant professor of history at Cal Poly Pomona. He mixes pioneering research with good writing, sharp analysis and the moving stories of everyday people. His work deserves a place on the bookshelves of all serious students of Los Angeles and the rest of urban California.

Sides tells the story of the Los Angeles black community from the late 19th century, when Pullman porters settled near the railroad yards, to the more familiar time after the 1992 riots. He recalls the years of segregation and bigotry in a city settled by white Southerners and Midwesterners who imposed their narrow view of life on what had been a rowdy frontier town. Segregation was practiced in parks, restaurants and other recreational facilities. Neighborhoods were segregated by racially restrictive covenants.

Sides explains how such segregation, particularly in public places, was enforced by the Los Angeles Police Department, "many of whose officers considered it part of their duties to reinforce the racial barriers of urban space. This confrontation would prove to be one of the most explosive in postwar Los Angeles." His words are a timely reminder to those who believe that civil rights history in Los Angeles began with the Rodney King beating. It is a much longer history to most African Americans, one handed down from generation to generation, a part of familial lore, with great-grandparents and young people telling the same kinds of stories of injustice, discrimination and police brutality.

I was especially drawn to Sides' research into the Communist Party's relationship with civil rights in Los Angeles during and just after World War II. The black population of the city was growing fast, as people moved from the South in the Great Migration, prompted by the availability of jobs in the formerly segregated aircraft and shipbuilding industries, which were desperate for workers during the war. But banks, markets and the streetcar line still refused to hire blacks, as did many other employers. Housing segregation kept African Americans in increasingly crowded neighborhoods around Central Avenue. Protests grew in intensity and frequency.

It was a time when the NAACP was heavily criticized for timidity. The organization, complained the California Eagle, an African American newspaper, was "more noted for its hesitancy than its militancy." When Herman Burns, a young black man, was clubbed to death by Los Angeles police in 1948, the Civil Rights Congress, a Communist Party front, stepped into the void and organized the "Justice for Burns Citizens Committee." The Burns campaign, says Sides, "heralded the emergence of the Communist Party as an important political force in black Los Angeles. During the 1940s and early 1950s, many African Americans in the city came to view the Communist Party as the most effective and expedient vehicle for civil rights activism." At one time, African Americans constituted about 10% of Los Angeles Communist Party membership. Party membership in California was second only to that of New York.

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