Tom Bradley documentary helps bridge the racial divide

Los Angeles's first black mayor, Tom Bradley, is the subject of a documentary that lays out the full extent of his extraordinary achievement.


LOS ANGELES, Aug. 10, 2015 — “Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race” is a critical documentary produced and directed by the OUR L.A. team of Alison Sotomayor and Lyn Goldfarb. OUR L.A. is a nonprofit corporation created to increase public awareness of people and stories of Los Angeles—both historic and present-day—through audio-visual and new media projects, and through education, preservation and outreach.

The two women tell the little-known story of Los Angeles Mayor Thomas J. “Tom” Bradley, the first African-American to helm a major city with a majority white population. Bradley held the office over 20 years—five consecutive terms. This is one of the most overlooked stories in American politics; many today know Tom Bradley only because the Los Angeles International Airport terminal bears his name.

It is a shocking reflection of our times that Bradley’s rise and rule has even become an afterthought within Los Angeles politics and history. Bradley’s 1973 win was unprecedented for any time.

Thirty-five years ago, the question of race and the possibility of bridging racial and ethnic barriers was truly tested, and Bradley succeeded, long before the election of America’s first black president. Bradley did something extraordinary: He formed a multi-racial coalition to win, and once he won, he redefined Los Angeles and led the way to the transformation of the national dialogue on race.

Producer and researcher Alison Sotomayor and director Lyn Goldfarb met while working on a documentary called “The New Los Angeles.” “The New Los Angeles” covers the period of Bradley’s election as mayor in 1973, and both women were struck by the fact that no one had ever documented Bradley’s historic entry and advancement into the political realm.

“Tom Bradley’s legacy was being forgotten, and it was being distorted,” says Sotomayor. “So we came together and said it’s a story that needs to be done. And also not just for the masses, but it’s very important for Lyn and I to be able to push this film to the next generation of young people.”

The film opens with an overview of the Aug. 11, 1965 Watts Riots, which, despite the large strides in civil rights for blacks, reflected the chasm that still existed over treatment of blacks in America. With yesterday’s anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting, fresh unrest has overtaken Ferguson. The #BlackLivesMatter crowds continue to provoke anarchy without any real leadership or desire for resolve. Tom Bradley’s legacy is a necessary and pivotal subject for our young people to study so that they can emulate his vision and tactics.

The grandson of slaves and the son of Texas sharecroppers, Tom Bradley was 7 years old when his family left the South for a better life in California. The Bradley family settled in South Central Los Angeles, and he became an accomplished athlete who won a track scholarship to UCLA.

As one of 55 African-American students in a student body of 7,000, Bradley began to develop his leadership skills when he mediated between black students and the administration on racial issues.

Bradley paused his studies in 1940 to join the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), where he maintained an unblemished and accomplished record. In Mayor Sam Yorty’s Los Angeles, there were few black police officers in the LAPD. The ones that did serve were restricted to the Newton Division in South Central Los Angeles, where most of Los Angeles’ black population resided. Blacks were never paired with white officers, and black citizens were routinely targeted and mistreated by white police.

When Chief Bill Parker took over the force in 1950, he continued the racial division within the department and gave more than passing support to the culture of brutality within the force. Bradley tried to transform the department from the inside, making recommendations on things that needed to be changed regarding LAPD policy toward blacks in general and black officers in particular.

Bradley took the lieutenant’s exam and passed, becoming the first black officer to supervise white policemen. When he sought promotion to captain, that was a bridge too far for Chief Parker.

Did Bradley mount a protest or file a grievance? No. While still on the force, he decided to resume his studies at Southwestern School of Law. He retired from the police force in 1962, and as a lawyer fought the LAPD machine from the outside.

He ran for a spot on the L.A. City Council in 1963, won, and continued to use his legal expertise and his position as city councilman to fight the LAPD’s entrenched racism and brutality.

In 1969, at the height of social and political unrest in the city and the nation, Bradley made an unsuccessful run for mayor, but his campaign was thwarted by Mayor Yorty’s dirty political machine. In 1973, he mounted a second campaign, this time ably targeting not only Jewish and liberal whites, but forming Hispanic, Asian and Native American coalitions.  In one of his campaign speeches, he declared, “This city is ready not for a black man, not for a red man, not for a yellow man, not for a white man; it’s ready for the best man—and that is Tom Bradley!”

And it was. Bradley was elected to office by a large margin. In his victory speech he said, “Tonight was a fulfillment of a dream, the impossible dream. The victory which has come tonight is not just a victory for Tom Bradley, not just a victory for the campaign, but a victory for progress, a victory for our children.”

Featured in the documentary are a former congressman, a U.S. ambassador and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young. Also included are Felix Bell, one of the first black officers in the LAPD; Los Angeles spiritual leaders Rev. Cecil L. Murray and Bishop H. Hartford; daughter Lorraine Bradley; former LAPD chief and L.A. city councilman Bernard Parks; historians Alberto Juarez and Christopher Jimenez y West; Wanda Moore, Bradley’s administrative assistant; and actor and Asian activist George Takei, among others.

These interviews, along with newsreel and never-before-seen footage and photographs help augment and deepen the narrative of Bradley’s journey to overcome racial divides and the impact his leadership and choices had not only on the city of Los Angeles, but on the state of California and the nation.

The film brings into sharp focus issues of police brutality in minority communities and the challenges of police reform. Bradley’s difficulties in this realm did not blunt his influence in changing the landscape of the city over his 20 years in office. He developed the downtown area, which had suffered severe decline since the end of World War II; he successfully installed a subway system to Los Angeles and oversaw the 1980s expansion of Los Angeles International Airport.

Bradley was also instrumental in opening up City Hall and commission positions to women and other minorities. Bradley redefined and reconfigured Los Angeles into a world-class city by first breaking barriers of race, then economics. One of Bradley’s greatest accomplishments was creating the first-ever profitable Olympics in 1994.

Along with the successes, the failures are also highlighted, from his failed attempts to reign in the LAPD, to his unsuccessful gubernatorial run. Most glaringly, the 1992 L.A. riots, which replicated the atmosphere that swept Bradley into office in his first term, tempered his momentum. He never recovered from this blow and ultimately decided to retire rather than run for a sixth term.

Yet Bradley’s legacy of an African-American transforming, building, and maintaining a city’s landscape is an enduring monument. Many black mayors — Marion Barry and Kwame Kilpatrick, to name a couple — have either been removed from their positions or have gone in disgrace. Bradley’s strategy of building coalitions that crossed racial and socieo-economic barriers set an example that could benefit politicians seeking elective office today.

“I think it really shows that we have to build bridges,” director Goldfarb said. “We have to break the boundaries and the barriers that separate us. What Tom Bradley showed us was that you could reach out to people who are different than you: different race, different ethnicities, different backgrounds, and that together, if you come together you can accomplish something much greater.”

“Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race” is the first documentary ever produced on Tom Bradley’s life and legacy. It opens this week, with screenings across the city of Los Angeles. The documentary premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June and can be seen at the following theaters:

  • Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. This screening is followed by a Q&A.
  • Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills, followed by a panel discussion.
  • Thursday at 7:30 p.m., at Laemmle Town Center in Encino, followed by a Q&A.

Visit the film’s website for details on how to obtain tickets for the screenings.

The documentary is also premiering locally on PBS television station KOCE on Aug. 18 at 8 p.m. The producers hope that the documentary will have viewings outside of Los Angeles and even the nation.

Mayor Bradley’s daughter Lorraine hopes that the reach will be “obviously worldwide, for the impact that it could have on the young people to know that there is a leader out there that did all these things. A lot of people come from minority areas and think maybe there is no hope for them or they think maybe they don’t have a chance to make it better. Here it was proved in 1973.”

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