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The clout that counts

Some say L.A.'s demographics are weakening black influence. History says something else.

November 11, 2007|Susan Anderson | Susan Anderson, former visiting professor at Pitzer College, is managing director of LA as Subject, an association of archives and collections hosted by USC Libraries.

Over the last 30 years, while L.A.'s Latinos have swelled from 18.5% of the city's population to 46.5%, the percentage of African Americans has declined from 17% to 11.2%. This dramatic demographic shift has sparked a lot of anxious talk about whether the historic civic and political influence of African Americans in Los Angeles will disappear, a casualty of rising Latino political clout.

This view of the world was trotted out again during the June primary to pick a successor for Juanita Millender-McDonald, a black member of Congress who died of cancer in April. An African American has represented the 37th Congressional District, which includes most of Long Beach, Carson and Compton, for more than 25 years. But because the demographics of the district have been changing in recent years and Latinos now substantially outnumber blacks, some political observers speculated that this time voters might elect a Latino.

But it didn't happen. Laura Richardson, a black assemblywoman, won.

This experience should have suggested that the anxiety about waning black clout may be a bit overwrought because, when it comes to African American influence, numbers are deceiving. From the day that they first settled in the city, blacks have always been outnumbered by whites and other minorities. At the end of the 19th century, for instance, they made up just 1% of the city's population, and even when their numbers peaked in the mid-20th century, there were still fewer blacks than there were whites or Latinos. Yet that has not stopped them from gaining and holding local political office as well as influencing civic culture. The black community first gained clout in Los Angeles politics during the 19th century campaigns against slavery and against early California civil statutes that prohibited people of color from testifying in court, attending public schools or voting. According to Lawrence de Graaf, a history professor emeritus at Cal State Fullerton, "more than any other racial minority, [African Americans] used traditional political organizations to gain publicity and leverage."

Black L.A. business owner Robert Owen and others helped lead an antislavery movement that ultimately led to freedom for a slave woman in Los Angeles named Biddy Mason and her family. In the landmark 1856 court case in L.A. District Court, Judge Benjamin Hayes ruled that Mason and her relatives, who had been brought to the free state of California by their Mormon owner, were "entitled to their freedom and are free forever." Mason went on to buy property, build a fortune and become a philanthropist and founder of the First AME Church.

After the Civil War and the passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, newly enfranchised black voters in L.A. became a swing bloc in municipal elections, a role they continue to hold. At the end of the 19th century, pressure from the State Convention of the Colored Citizens of California, a chapter of the pro-abolition National Colored Convention, led to the repeal of many discriminatory state laws. Although black leaders in 1870 still had to challenge the city registrar for attempting to prevent the 25 black men eligible to vote from participating in that year's election, by 1911, the city's 3,000 black male voters helped provide the 3,500-vote margin of victory in California's referendum on women's suffrage.

Far more important to the rise of black political influence than bloc voting is coalition building. Because there were generally not enough black voters to win outright majorities, African American politicians have had to make common cause with white voters and with other racial and ethnic minorities to win political office. It's a skill that dates to at least 1918, when Frederick M. Roberts, a newspaper publisher, mortuary owner and community leader, became the first African American in the West to be elected to state office. At the time, blacks made up not quite 3% of L.A.'s population. The largest concentration was in the then-74th Assembly District, which included Central Avenue, but even there, according to historian Douglas Flamming, fewer than 20% of the district's voters were black. To win the Assembly seat, Roberts courted white Republican and Progressive Party voters, building what was probably the first multiethnic political coalition in Los Angeles.

Sixteen years later, at the height of the Depression and during Upton Sinclair's End Poverty in California campaign, Augustus Hawkins, an African American Democrat, successfully ran for Roberts' seat, assembling a voter coalition of blacks, whites, union members and the social reformers of L.A.'s "Utopian Society." Along with Byron Rumford, the first Northern California black to be elected to the Legislature, Hawkins transformed the state's fair-housing and employment laws before becoming the first African American elected to Congress from the West. (This year, he celebrated his 100th birthday; he is the oldest-living former congressman.)

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