The first African American mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley (born 1917) won election five times, serving a record 20 years in a city where African Americans constituted a small minority of the electorate. He was twice (1982, 1986) the Democratic candidate for governor of California.
Born to an east central Texas sharecropper family of Crenner (Hawkins) and Lee Thomas Bradley on December 29, 1917, Bradley was one of seven children. When he was only seven years old his family moved to Los Angeles, where his mother worked as a domestic servant and his father at various jobs including waiting tables and Pullman car porter. A talented athlete, Bradley excelled in football and the 440-yard dash at Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles. After high school he enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles to become a track star.
Dropping out of college Bradley joined the Los Angeles police force for what turned into a 21-year career (1940-1961) and rose through the ranks to lieutenant. In the 1950s Bradley enrolled in night school and completed his law studies at Southwestern University, where he received an LL.B. degree in 1956 and won admission to the California bar the next year. In 1941 Bradley married Ethel May Arnold, a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church which he attended and where he later became a trustee. He was the father of two daughters, Phyllis, a school teacher, and Lorraine, a secretary. After his police career, Bradley practiced law briefly and in 1963 won a seat as Los Angeles' first African American city councilman. Reelected in 1967 and again in 1971 from a biracial district, Bradley often spoke for larger citywide concerns including what he perceived to be poorly planned off-shore oil drilling and its possible negative environmental effects.
Tom Bradley challenged incumbent Mayor Sam Yorty in 1969. In a bitter campaign, and in the runoff which ensued, Yorty painted Bradley as a 1960s radical and defeated him. By 1973 the apprehensions of Los Angeleans had cooled considerably on the issue of African American urban riots, and in this election Tom Bradley hired New York media consultant David Garth to package an effective advertising campaign. Garth presented Bradley as the politically responsible and temperate moderate that he was and would become as mayor. Bradley won a stunning upset, carrying 56 percent of the vote in a city in which African Americans comprised only 15 percent of the electorate. Bradley won reelection four times, several of those with even larger majorities. He carried 59 percent of the vote in 1977, 64 percent in 1981, and 67 percent in 1985, achieving a precedent-setting fourth term.
Throughout his terms as mayor, Bradley led and guided his city through a series of problems including the first energy crisis of 1973-1974. The crisis prompted the mayor to develop a program to make Los Angeles a leader in energy conservation and the "solar city" of America. Although sensitive to environmental concerns, Bradley was also an aggressive executive in encouraging economic development and private investment in his city. Initiatives to improve public transportation, control freeway construction, and vitalize the city's core were also undertaken. Mayor Bradley worked diligently during his early administrations to overcome the impersonal quality of urban leadership by holding "open house" days in branch offices in various parts of the city where citizens could meet their mayor.
A physically imposing figure of more than six feet tall and robust in appearance, Bradley paradoxically projected a soft, low-key, in-control image to the public. A deft politician with a calming influence, Bradley seldom embroiled himself in racial and political turmoil (much to the displeasure of radicals) and adroitly sidestepped the issue of forced cross-town bussing of school children which the courts settled. In the first six years of his administration he avoided new taxes and balanced the budget for his tax conscious electorate. An area in which he suffered considerable criticism was the rapid increase in homicides in 1979. Notwithstanding his career as an ex-police officer, the mayor supported and implemented a civilian commission to oversee the police department.
Although he opened up more city jobs for minorities than any previous mayor, Bradley was colorblind on most public issues and came down on the side of merit and efficiency in personnel management. Bradley also prided himself on fiscal conservatism, which the mayor's office called "enlightened stinginess." In his third term Bradley cut back on city spending and public services (including street cleaning and library hours) when tax revenues were not sufficient to meet expenses. Tempted into statewide politics, Bradley ran as a Democratic candidate for the California governorship in 1982 and lost a hard-fought campaign to Republican George Deukmejian, an Armenian-American and former state attorney general. Mayor Bradley entered into the national slipstream of media consciousness in a large way when he won for his city the privilege of hosting the 1984 summer Olympic Games and played the role of official host. Although discussed in a preliminary fashion as a possible Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1984, the party instead chose Geraldine Ferraro. Bolstered by favorable results in straw polls, Bradley in 1986 again challenged Deukmejian in a contest for governor of California. However, he lost the race to Deukmejian.
Bradley's later administration was marred by conflict and scandal, largely as a result of the Rodney King incident and the riots that ensued when the involved officers were acquitted. On March 3, 1991, King was severely beaten by Los Angeles police officers, and the event was recorded on videotape. Four officers were charged with assault and controversial police chief Darryl Gates was suspended, then reinstated. Mayor Bradley urged Gates to resign, and when he refused, communication between the two disintegrated. A year later, when the verdict in the officers' trial sparked riots in South Central Los Angeles, Gates was again at the center of the controversy. A panel led by former FBI and CIA director William Webster held Gates responsible for not having an adequate plan to deal with potential unrest. But Webster also blamed Mayor Bradley for poor relations between the police department and city hall. Bradley confessed that he and Gates had not spoken for over a year before the riots. The riots had a devastating impact on the city and on Bradley's administration: 58 people were killed, 2, 283 were injured, and there was over $750 million in property damage. The Economist wrote, "Since the 1984 Olympics, his [Bradley's] administration has been pockmarked by petty corruption, inaction, and, of course, last year's riots."
After the riots, Bradley was praised for forming "Rebuild L.A.", a task force established to put the city back in order. He also formed a program called, "L.A.'s Best", which provided afternoon activities for young people in an effort to keep them off the streets. In 1993 Bradley retired from the Mayor's office after a record 20 years and after 50 years of public service as police officer, city councilman, and then mayor. He was replaced by millionaire businessman Richard Riordan. Of his years as mayor Bradley said, "Everything that I set out to do 20 years ago, I have accomplished. The Olympics were the major event of my life…[the riots were] the most painful experience of my life."
In 1996, Bradley suffered a heart attack while in a fast-food restaurant, but recovered. A reserved man who was known as a hard-working and conscientious administrator, Tom Bradley was among the leading African American political figures in the United States.
For his early life, see The New York Times Biographical Service 12 (April 1981) and 15 (June 1984) and "Winning Mayor, " The Economist, 279 (April 18, 1981). For Bradley's mayoral and public career, see "Tom Bradley, " Biographical Dictionary of American Mayors, 1820-1980, eds. M. Holli and P. Jones (1981); Mayors of Los Angeles (1968, 1980); TIME magazine, (October 2, 1982 and November 15, 1982); and U.S. News and World Report, 96 (March 6, 1984). See also Contemporary Black Biography (Vol. 2) (1992). □
December 29, 1917
September 29, 1998
Politician Thomas "Tom" Bradley was born in Calvert, Texas, a town located between Waco and Houston. Both his mother and father were sharecroppers. When Bradley was four, the family moved to Dallas, and when he was six, to Somerton, Arizona, where they lived with relatives and where he first attended school.
In 1924 the family moved to Los Angeles and Bradley attended Polytechnic High School; he was one of 113 blacks out of a student population of 1,300. He excelled as a scholar and athlete and won a scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
In 1941 Bradley left UCLA to enter the police academy. He remained in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) until 1961, rising to the rank of lieutenant, the highest position achieved up to that time by an African American.
During his years on the police force, Bradley attended Loyola University Law School and Southwestern University Law School at night, and he was accepted to the California Bar in 1956. Upon leaving the force in 1961, he joined the law practice of Charles Matthews. In 1963 Bradley ran successfully for the City Council seat for Los Angeles's tenth district, which was predominantly white. He was one of the first blacks outside the East Coast elected to political office by a nonblack majority constituency. He retained his seat until 1973.
In August 1965, when the Watts Riots erupted, Councilman Bradley's criticism of police brutality brought him into conflict with his former comrades in the LAPD, and with Mayor Sam Yorty. Despite a widespread white backlash against civil unrest and black militancy, Bradley's law enforcement background and moderately liberal politics, along with his dignified, unthreatening bearing, gave him interracial popularity in a city that was only 15 percent black. In 1969 Bradley challenged Yorty for the office of mayor. He won the primary with 46 percent of the vote to Yorty's 26 percent, but in the runoff, after a race-baiting campaign by Yorty, Bradley was narrowly defeated.
In 1973 he ran again, this time defeating Yorty 56 percent to 43 percent to become Los Angeles's first black mayor, as well as the first African-American mayor of a predominantly white city. He was reelected four times. A major highlight of Bradley's tenure was the athletically and commercially successful 1984 Summer Olympics. The Bradley administration also spurred downtown development. However, partly as a result of weak municipal government, Bradley was accused of neglecting working-class and inner-city neighborhoods, particularly black areas. Nevertheless, he was sufficiently popular in 1982 to win the Democratic Party nomination for governor of the nation's largest state. He was projected to win the race but narrowly lost to Republican George Deukmejian. In 1985 Bradley won a fourth term as mayor, and the same year he won the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Spingarn Medal. In 1986 he again ran for governor and once again lost.
Bradley was reelected mayor in 1989, but his final term was marred by the savage March 1991 beating of Rodney King, a black motorist, by four LAPD officers, an incident that was secretly videotaped by a bystander. Repeated showings of the tape on national television caused a nationwide furor. When the officers who had been charged were acquitted in 1992, Los Angeles erupted in a riot that dwarfed the Watts uprising of 1965. Bradley drew heavy criticism from blacks over his ineffective control of the police department and from whites for his inability to reestablish order in the city. When King's assailants were tried on federal charges in 1993, Bradley prepared an emergency response in case of another riot, but two officers were convicted and no violence occurred. Bradley completed his last term in 1993 and died of a heart attack in Los Angeles on September 29, 1998.
The International terminal at Los Angeles Airport is named after Bradley, who was mayor when the terminal was funded and built.
"Biography of Mayor Tom Bradley." Mayor's Office, City Hall, Los Angeles, 1993.
Horne, Gerald. Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.
Payne, J. Gregory, and Scott C. Ratzan. Tom Bradley: The Impossible Dream: A Biography. Santa Monica, Calif.: Roundtable, 1986.
gerald horne (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005