A question of leadership

July 18-Aug. 1, 1957
Los Angeles

In the summer of 1957, eight years before the Watts riots, the Los Angeles Sentinel, a weekly newspaper serving the black community, published a three-part series by Stanley Robertson titled: “Does Los Angeles Have a Negro Leader?”

Robertson’s conclusion was “No.” But the question remains far more interesting than the answer.

The series began with a hypothetical case: another bombing of a home in a white neighborhood that was recently sold to a black family, like the blasts on Dunsmuir in 1951-52.

Robertson noted the painfully inept effort by one white newspaper to get comments on the bombings from representatives of the African American community. “Some of the answers would have made good copy for ‘Amos ‘n Andy,” Robertson said.

The newspaper, he said, indiscriminately interviewed several prominent doctors and businessmen as well as a convicted gambler, a “would-be politician who had a lucrative ‘book’ going behind his phony real estate office” and a newspaperman who was later convicted of petty theft.

In the event of another bombing or other crisis, Robertson asked:

“What single Negro man or woman in Los Angeles will be the person who will come to the front as not only the spokesman and the champion of the bombed family but for Negroes throughout the city? What single Negro man or woman will have enough ‘influence’  to put the right pressure in the right places so that the investigation of the bombing by police and other authorities will not end as another ‘unsolved case?’

“What Negro in Los Angeles will have enough ‘contact’ with all segments of local radio, television and press so as to ensure that ‘all the facts’ are made public? What Negro in Los Angeles will be ‘powerful enough’ to cause city officials to use every resource at their command in breaking the case?

“In short, what Los Angeles Negro will act as the leader of the Negro people in case such an event takes place? Does the third-largest city in the United States have a Negro leader? Is there a Negro in Los Angeles who is as powerful as New York’s fiery little borough president, Hulan Jack, Chicago’s William Dawson, Montgomery’s Martin Luther King ?

“Or is the third-largest Negro settlement in the United States without a recognized leader?”

The second part of the series portrayed a sadly disillusioned, cynical view of black politicians and ministers who could be had for a price. Robertson also noted the LAPD’s failure to treat prominent African Americans with the same respect usually accorded to distinguished whites in a famous 1955 gambling raid on the Pacific Town Club, 4332 W. Adams, in which 123 people, many of them doctors and lawyers, were arrested.

“Do you think the same thing would have happened if the same type of affair was going on, as it very often does, at a white club of comparable stature as the Pacific Town Club?” one man asked.

None of Robertson’s sources were identified except by trade, their gender or the amount of time they had been in Los Angeles.

One African American who had lived in Los Angeles for many years said:

“When I was a young man in Los Angeles there weren’t many Negroes here but we fought for the things we wanted. Things which people today are still enjoying but take for granted. We fought for, and got, Negro teachers in the school system. We opened the city and county departments. We fought for equal treatment from the police.

“But our trouble was leadership. Yes, we had some leaders. Some who were pretty promising until the politicians and people in high places got to them. For secure, well-paying positions or an occasional handout, most of them merely became figureheads doing whatever they were asked to do. There were a few who still fought for what they believed in, but against the money these captive leaders had to spend on an occasional barbecue or drink, they soon disappeared.

“I’ve watched people of this type come and go. After World War II, with the large influx of Negroes and the great amount of young Negroes who were attending college and branching out into the fields which had been closed to us in my day I thought this would change. But, honestly, it hasn’t. The only thing which has changed is the price by which people can be bought off.

“We called those people who could be bought off in my time Uncle Toms. There are still Uncle Toms today, only Uncle Toms with fancier clothes and fatter wallets.”

Robertson also described conflict and lack of unity among newcomers and more established blacks. Some in the African American community charged that there was an “old guard” “from the days when the ‘Negro vote’ could be delivered by one whopping big chicken fry, barbecue or watermelon feed at Lincoln Park or South Park,” Robertson said.

There were just as many accusations, he said, that the newer generation of blacks was all too eager to trade their ideals for a Brooks Brothers suit, a T-bird and a home in the suburbs.

The third part of the series described the effects of upward mobility on blacks, the weakness of the local NAACP compared with the Urban League, the Lullaby Guild and the Jack and Jill Organization, and the lack of unity in supporting African American politicians.

One woman told Robertson:

“This losing of ‘identity’ knows no bounds among Negroes who become a success in their chosen profession…. However, most of those who attempt to forget that they are Negroes really don’t realize that one of the major factors in their success has been the fact that they are Negroes. Those people who are appointed, or elected, to public office, for instance, aren’t naive enough to think that they’re holding office because they’re qualified?” 

As for the NAACP, one unidentified official cited an appearance in Los Angeles by Jackie Robinson as part of a nationwide fundraiser. Although Robinson helped raise a significant amount of money in Oakland, Detroit, Chicago and New York, the man said, in Los Angeles, Robinson couldn’t “draw flies.” “Can you blame that on the NAACP leadership or the people of Los Angeles?” the official asked.

Robertson  quoted a woman who said that although a few “talk their way into being regarded by the two major parties as ‘key Negroes,’ no one person is anything more than a political gnat.”

She said: “We tell ourselves that we are much more organized, have made more progress and have more people in higher positions that the Mexican American community here. But what Negro in Los Angeles can we point to who is comparable to City Councilman Edward Roybal, who happens to be of Mexican descent?

“Rather than spending our time fighting among ourselves trying to secure a little plum for ourselves, as seems to happen whenever a Negro announces that he’s a candidate for a particular office, why not get together and back one candidate? How many Mexican-Americans do you suppose have run against Roybal?”

As it stands, Robertson’s series only states the problems and judging by his remarks, his stories hit a nerve in the African American community, eliciting phone calls and letters. But had I been his editor, I would have asked him to write a final installment exploring possible solutions. And for all I know, perhaps he did in a later story that I have yet to discover in the archives.

Instead, he concluded: “Does Los Angeles have a Negro leader? What do you say? I say no, not now, but a few men who, if they continue in their present manner, are only a few years away.”

Unfortunately, Robertson didn’t identify them. And eight years later, white Los Angeles will wonder what all the fuss is about down in Watts.

For those wishing to read the entire series, Part 1 appeared July 18, 1957; Part 2, July 25, 1957; Part 3, Aug. 1, 1957. The Sentinel is available on microfilm at the Los Angeles Public Library.

Bonus facts:

  • The Los Angeles Sentinel is now owned by Danny Bakewell.
  • In 1957, Rodney G. King hadn’t even been born.

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About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1957, Countdown to Watts and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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