Hawkins, Augustus F.
Augustus F. Hawkins
In 1991 Augustus F. Hawkins retired from his political career with an impressive fifty-seven-year record of elected service. The Democrat lawmaker spent half of those years in the California State Assembly before winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1962, where he was the first African American sent to Congress by voters from a state west of the Mississippi River. He represented southern Los Angeles in Washington from 1963 until his retirement twenty-eight years later.
Born Augustus Freeman Hawkins on August 31, 1907, in Shreveport, Louisiana, the future legislator was the last of five children. His paternal grandfather had been British and white, and Hawkins was so light-skinned that he was mistakenly assumed to be of European ancestry. Seating on Shreveport's streetcars was segregated during his childhood, and sometimes if he sat in the first row of the "Blacks Only" section the conductors would move the sign to the seat behind him. "I got so angry with the whole thing and embarrassed that I would just walk," Hawkins later said, according to the Newark Star-Ledger.
Hawkins's father was a pharmacist who moved his family out West around 1918. They spent time in Denver before settling in California by the early 1920s, and were one among thousands of black families who fled the segregated southern states and their lack of economic opportunity during this period. In Los Angeles, the grittier southern part of the city became home to this influx of African Americans, who joined Mexican Americans already there. In an interview with Clyde Woods for the University of California's Oral History Project, Hawkins recalled that "opportunities were plentiful. There were a lot of small businesses. I recall that along Central Avenue, every other block was a black-owned drugstore. We had a great assortment of restaurants along Central Avenue."
Part of the Historic 1934 Race
Hawkins worked at one of those drugstores and for the post office during his years at Thomas Jefferson High School, an anchor of the neighborhood located at Hooper Avenue and East Forty-first Street. He went on to the University of California's Los Angeles campus and earned his undergraduate degree in economics in 1931. By that point, Los Angeles and the rest of the country were mired in the Great Depression, and with few job prospects Hawkins went into the real estate business with his brother Edward. He also had an eye toward a career in politics, so he took graduate courses at the University of Southern California's Institute of Government.
In 1934 Hawkins ran for a seat in the California State Assembly, hoping to oust the Republican incumbent from his south-central Los Angeles assembly district, who had been the first African American in Californian history to serve in the lower house of the state legislature. One of Hawkins's campaign pledges was to reduce the Los Angeles streetcar fare from seven cents down to six, and he was also linked with the gubernatorial campaign of the muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair, who secured the Democrat Party's nomination in that year's race with his plan to "End Poverty in California." With thousands out of work in the region, Sinclair—a onetime Socialist Party member—proposed state takeovers of shuttered factories and untilled farmland, both of which could be better utilized as cooperative enterprises. The plan attracted serious support, but Sinclair lost the race. Hawkins, however, went on to Sacramento after beating the incumbent by seven percentage points.
Elected when he was just twenty-seven years old, Hawkins served in the California State Assembly for the next twenty-nine years representing south-central Los Angeles. The neighborhood changed immensely over the years, but it remained a starting point for many African Americans who moved to California seeking better opportunities, as his father had done. Hawkins's staff managed thirteen reelection bids, and he noticed that every two years about a third of his campaign mailings came back because the resident was no longer in the district. "As people became more prosperous, they moved elsewhere, and it was the newcomers, the people generally from the South, who moved into the area," he told Woods. "In a sense, it was a port of entry."
Hawkins faced unusual challenges in trying to help his constituents. Police units known as Red Squads were active in Los Angeles, New York, and other cities that were deemed susceptible to the influence of Communist Party operatives in the 1930s and 1940s, and in the interview with Woods Hawkins explained how these squads worked. "If, for example, a meeting was staged and the purpose of the meeting was to speak in terms of lower gas and electric bills or to speak in opposition to the rising fares on the public transportation system," he recalled, "many times the Red Squad would march through the meeting, you know, sort of intimidating, and those who were promoting the meeting were hounded around the streets as—and suspected and classified as—communist suspects. And if you violated a simple infraction, you were arrested. You always knew that you had to walk a very straight line so that you could not be arrested. That's how serious it became."
Authored Nation's Toughest Employment Discrimination Law
Hawkins chaired several committees during his tenure in the California State Assembly, including those on public utilities, unemployment, labor and capital, and assembly rules, and he championed legislation that improved child-care options for working parents, created a fair housing agency, and set up a loan program for military veterans. He also sought to have some of the first African-American judges appointed to jurisdictions in the state. However, his most significant contribution was the decade-plus struggle he led to win passage of the 1959 Fair Employment Practices Act, which prohibited job discrimination based on race or ancestry in all California workplaces with five or more employees.
At a Glance …
Born Augustus Freeman Hawkins, August 31, 1907, in Shreveport, LA; died of natural causes, November 10, 2007, in Bethesda, MD; son of Nyanza (a pharmacist) and Hattie Helena Hawkins; married Pegga Adeline Smith (a concert singer), 1945 (died 1966); married Elsie Jackson Taylor, 1977 (died 2007); children: stepdaughters Barbara A. Hammond and Brenda L. Stevenson, stepson Michael A. Taylor. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Methodist. Education: University of California, Los Angeles, A.B., 1931; graduate courses at the Institute of Government, University of Southern California.
Career: Co-manager of a real estate office in Los Angeles after 1931; elected to the California State Assembly from the Sixty-second District, 1934; reelected thirteen times and chaired the assembly's committees on rules, public utilities, unemployment, and labor and capital; elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the Twenty-first District of California, 1962, and reelected six times; elected to U.S. House of Representatives, from California's Twenty-ninth District, 1974, and reelected seven times; chaired the House committees on education and labor, house administration, and subcommittee on employment opportunity; Hawkins Family Memorial Foundation for Educational Research and Development, founder, 1969, and director, 1969-2007.
Memberships: Congressional Black Caucus (founding member, 1971); National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In 1962 Hawkins ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from roughly his same south-central district, beating a Republican challenger with 84 percent of the vote, and with his win he achieved a historic feat as the first African American to be elected by California voters to serve in Congress; he was also the first black member of Congress representing a state west of the Mississippi. Hawkins's congressional district was originally the Twenty-first District, but redistricting in the 1970s shifted some of the boundaries and after 1974 he served the constituents of what became known as the Twenty-ninth District.
When Hawkins was sworn into office in early 1963, he was one of just six African Americans among the 435 seats in the House. Again, his career there was marked by several notable pieces of civil rights legislation that he either cowrote or sponsored. Based on his experience with the California Fair Employment Practices Act, he was asked to draft the Title VII section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibited racial discrimination in employment and spelled out the role of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Held Doubts about Welfare
A year later, part of his congressional district back home erupted in the 1965 Watts Riots, one of the worst urban disturbances of the century. Afterward, Hawkins chastised the Los Angeles Police Department for its brutality and spoke before a special governor's commission on the root causes of the riot, which were identified as poverty, unemployment, and inferior schools. According to Woods, Hawkins told the commission, "Negroes want to govern ourselves. We're tired of welfare and want jobs, not make-work." Looking back over his congressional career, he said he supported some of the federal programs established in the 1960s under President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty despite his concerns they were only temporary solutions. In hindsight, he was proved correct. He told Woods that "people don't go on welfare just because they enjoy it, because it's not that generous. They're on welfare because they have nothing else better to do. One has to plan these things in such a way that opportunities that open up may be at that low level. But they want to see careers. They want to see themselves moving ahead, and unless there's that built in, then to merely train people for jobs as hamburger flippers or to wash an automobile[,] that's not what they're looking for."
Two other important education-related acts that passed by Congress had Hawkins's imprint. He cosponsored the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, whose "Title One" established and funded remedial teachers and programs for schools and school districts with a higher proportion of low-income households. In 1986 he took up the cause of the ailing historically black colleges and universities that were founded long before federal legislation prevented discrimination in education. Because so many more African-American students were now enrolled in other schools, these colleges had suffered a serious drop in enrollment. Hawkins coauthored an amendment for the 1986 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 that became known as the Historically Black College and University Act of 1986. It appropriated federal funds for these schools in their efforts to recruit, educate, and graduate students from low-income households.
Hawkins was also a longtime champion of raising the federal minimum wage. In 1978 he teamed with the Minnesota senator Hubert H. Humphrey to sponsor the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act, which eventually became known as the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act. It set four economic-policy goals for the U.S. economy: full employment, price stability, production growth, and balance of trade and budget. It also made changes that forced the Federal Reserve Bank to use long-term economic growth and inflation-reduction as goals when setting policy.
Cofounded the Congressional Black Caucus
For his long record of service in Congress, Hawkins was nicknamed "the dean" by his fellow lawmakers, a significantly higher proportion of whom were African American than when he first came to Washington. In 1969 he became a cofounder of the Democratic Select Committee, which was renamed the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971. He declined to run for reelection in 1990, and a protégé of his, Maxine Waters, succeeded him. He did not retire completely, however, as he remained active in the Hawkins Family Memorial Foundation for Educational Research and Development. For many years he was the oldest living person who had served in Congress, but he lost that title when he died of natural causes on November 10, 2007, at the age of one hundred. He had been married twice and widowed twice, and he was survived by three stepchildren.
According to William Blakey of the Diverse Issues in Higher Education, a few days later Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, another Democrat from California, eulogized Hawkins at a memorial service using his own oft-quoted words: "The leadership belongs not to the loudest, not to those who beat the drums or blow the trumpets, but to those who … in all seasons, work for the practical realization of a better world—those who have the stamina to persist and to remain dedicated. To those belong the leadership."
Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.
Diverse Issues in Higher Education, December 13, 2007, p. 12.
Ebony, December 1989, p. 144.
Jet, December 3, 2007, p. 24.
New York Times, November 13, 2007.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), November 17, 2007, p. 18.
"Black Leadership in Los Angeles: Augustus F. Hawkins," University of California, Los Angeles, OralHistory Project, http://content.cdlib.org/xtf/view?docId_hb858011v4&query_&brand_oac (accessed May 13, 2008).
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