YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Realist with passion

Through the decades, Larry Aubry has faced up to the challenges of L.A.'s African Americans.

August 19, 2007|Jim Newton | Jim Newton is the Editorial Page editor of The Times.

This is the fourth in an occasional series of conversations with Southern California activists and intellectuals. The series and videotaped interviews with the subjects are collected at


The evolving place of African Americans in Los Angeles culture and politics is a topic much discussed in the corridors of city influence, but rarely is it broached publicly or candidly. Many Los Angeles blacks fear that their political influence is waning, giving way to the rising Latino population in the southern and eastern reaches of the city and region. For their part, many Latinos view their black representatives warily, as artifacts of an earlier period in Southern California history.

Important though they are, those topics are tough to discuss because they are fraught with the potential for racial generalization.

Larry Aubry is an exception to that reticence. Deep in experience, both thoughtful and outspoken, he is a wise and energetic activist who has lived the travails and triumphs of African Americans and yet is able to see those experiences objectively.

Aubry came to Los Angeles, as so many blacks did, as part of the migration from the South to take work in Southern California's wartime defense industries. That was during the 1940s, when Central Avenue was lifting off as a center of jazz but when whole parts of the city were explicitly reserved for whites. He went to Fremont High School, where, in 1947, blacks were hung in effigy. Posted signs proclaimed "No niggers," and, later, blacks were barred from residing in -- even entering -- Inglewood. Aubry today lives in Inglewood, which now is heavily Latino.

He was a social service worker -- probation, mostly -- through two riots, the explosive Watts conflagration of 1965 and the wider, more depressing social breakdown in 1992, when rioters set stores afire and looted their way across parts of the city in protest over the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney G. King.

All of that was discouraging to witness, but it did not break Aubry's spirit. He passed his 70th birthday a few years back and has seen more than enough to be circumspect, but he remains optimistic and resistant to cynicism. He is a respected columnist who has held a spot at the Los Angeles Sentinel for more than 20 years; he's a father of five, proud to have raised them in an environment better than that of his youth but unsentimental about the obstacles they too face. The result: Aubry is a rarity in a city in which discussions of ethnic politics are too-often guarded or hedged. He is a passionate realist.

The focus of both his clear vision and his passion is, to a large degree, the changing nature of Southern California's African American culture. His analysis is unflinching. Aubry likes Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is popular across much of the city, but acknowledges that the mayor is regarded warily by some blacks, particularly older ones. His attempt to take over the L.A. Unified School District, for instance, was cheered by most Latinos but viewed suspiciously by many African Americans, who worried that a Latino-run district would have little use for their children.

Aubry's take on the complex question of where blacks are today begins in his youth. It forms around Central Avenue, once a hub of African American culture, a place he remembers for its jaunty ebullience and strong sense of community. The avenue today is in wretched shape, with long stretches of dilapidated buildings. Its demise strikes many as symbolic of the culture that gave it vivacity just a few decades ago.

"There's no comparison," Aubry says. "You've got structural deterioration. You've got demographic shifts. It's a Latino area now. . . . It's almost like apples and oranges, it's so different. Back then, we had an affinity for each other, a whole lot of support. And you had a sense of caring and sharing that I just don't see anymore."

Central Avenue's heyday came in an era of overt segregation. As those days gave way to subtler forms of discrimination, Aubry recalls, more nuanced divisions set in -- and blacks who once built communities splintered into class sects.

The crowning epoch of black influence in Los Angeles began in 1973, when Tom Bradley, a former LAPD officer and member of the City Council, became the city's first African American mayor, sworn in on a sunny July afternoon by Earl Warren, the retired chief justice who had written the Brown vs. Board of Education decision 19 years earlier. Bradley went on to hold the office through five terms, making him L.A.'s most enduring mayor. But Bradley concentrated his reformist energies on building a downtown and integrating city jobs. South-Central and its poorer residents slipped further and further away from the mainstream, a bitter irony for those poor blacks who had hoped for so much from Bradley.

Los Angeles Times Articles