A Multi-Racial Catalyst for Democracy
This project was made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit www.calhum.org.
Edward R. Roybal was elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1949, he was the first person of color and first to serve in this position in the twentieth century. Representing Boyle Heights and District Nine, Roybal emerged as a result of the grassroots efforts of a multiracial coalition of individuals and groups, who were tired of the lack of attention politicians paid to the needs of residents on the Eastside. As a Mexican American political pioneer, his advancement of social justice while in office cut across racial and ethnic lines. This exhibition asks: What difference does electoral politics make in bringing about democracy in local neighborhoods in Los Angeles? Does Roybal’s legacy continue to play a role in today’s Boyle Heights, in shaping neighborhood empowerment and democratic practice?
Edward Roybal was born in New Mexico but grew up in Boyle Heights. After attending Roosevelt High School he becomes a social worker. Saul Alinsky, known as the “founder of modern community activism” had a strategy that brought cross-racial and cross-religious coalitions together to influence local politics. Alinsky would eventually hire Fred Ross to organize in Boyle Heights under the “Community Service Organization” (CSO). The CSO was funded through Saul Alinsky’s Chicago-based organization, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF).
Once the CSO was born, Ross would be the main organizer, while Roybal was voted in as president until he became the leading candidate to win the Ninth District seat in 1949. Fred Ross would continue to organize CSO chapters all over the state of California. By 1963, the CSO had 34 chapters and over 10,000 members.
Mexican American Support
Organizer Fred Ross, along with Roybal’s early Mexican American supporters, shaped the CSO as a grass-roots organization from the ground up. House meetings were an organizing strategy to grow support among Mexican American volunteers, who would later become a neighborhood assembly. Those who agreed to come to a house meeting were asked to bring along one or two others, carefully tapping into existing networks among relatives, neighbors, and friends. Eventually, hundreds of members attended weekly meetings and deputized door-to-door voter registrars, registering approximately 17,000 new voters before the next city council election.
Key to the growth of Mexican American support for Roybal was the labor movement in Los Angeles. Emerging from the steelworkers union, Anthony Rios was a founding member of the CSO who would serve as chairman for decades. Under Rios, the CSO employed a holistic approach to empower the Mexican-American community by offering a variety of social services ranging from youth programming and housing development to voter registration and community credit unions.
Hope Mendoza (Schechter) was another early supporter, widely recognized for her work with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the CSO. Daughter of Mexican immigrants, Mendoza grew up in Los Angeles but dropped out of school to work as a seamstress. She chaired the labor committee of the CSO and held active voter registration drives that helped Latinos register to vote. After the CSO, Mendoza would serve as a member of the Democratic State Central Committee for over two decades. Mendoza fought for women’s rights and was an advocate for Mexican-American women, especially in an effort to reduce the levels of discrimination in the workplace.
Jewish support for Ed Roybal was a critical part of his 1949 electoral coalition. At the time, the community-made up a larger part of the Ninth District electorate than the Mexican American community. came not only from Saul Alinksy and the IAF in Chicago but from the local Jewish community that made up more voters in the Ninth District than the Mexican American community in 1949. The Jewish community not only supported the campaign financially but was a critical part of his 1949 electoral coalition. Royal won the general election with 59 percent of the vote, due in part to the efforts of the Jewish community.
During the final two weeks of the general election, William (Bill) Phillips, a Jewish migrant to Los Angeles, was asked to co-chair the newly formed Boyle Heights Support Committee. Phillips, a Jewish migrant to Los Angeles in the 1930s, opened and owned the Phillips Music Store on Brooklyn Avenue in 1936. This store, which would be the epicenter of the dynamic development of an eastside sound from the 1940s through the 1970s., Phillips encouraged such acts as Thee Midnighters, Los Lobos, and Ollin, and others by encouraging them, to perfect a sound that would represent East Los Angeles. Bill Phillips was active in the Michigan Soto Jewish Community Center and would support Roybal throughout his tenure on the City Council. But it would start with Roybal winning the general election with 59 percent of the total vote, due in part to the efforts of the Jewish community.
Joseph Eli Kovner’sThe Eastside Sun, owned by Joseph Eli Kovner, would support the rival incumbent in the 1949 election., After Roybal’s victory, however, Kovner and his newspaper would become one of Roybal’s strongest supporters, and. Kovner came to regard Roybalhim as the ultimate defender of the neighborhood. Kovner and the Sun, praising hisRoybal’s efforts in the City Council to bring attention to the needs of Boyle Heights and fought those who would endanger the community, such as developers, and the architects of the freeway system, and others who would endanger the community. By 1951, Kovner and the Eastside Sun would actively endorse every one of Roybal’s campaigns, including two unsuccessful campaigns for higher office in the 1950s.
African American Support
African Americans had lived in Boyle Heights since at least the 1890s, when many worked as Pullman porters and established homes in the area. The Ninth District also included the African American community along Central Avenue, and Roybal sought endorsements there.
Assemblyman Gus Hawkins, attorney Loren Miller, and the African American community newspaper California Eagle all gave their endorsements to Roybal’s election in 1949 as “the real voice of the working people.” After he took office, Roybal introduced a new Fair Employment Ordinance and sought to combat housing discrimination and police brutality. But he was also pushed by Almena Davis Lomax, owner and publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel to take a more aggressive stance on a city-wide Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). Roybal would ask Lomax to become part of his local advisors, and the boundaries of the Ninth District stretched deeper into the south L.A. African American community over time. By the time Roybal stepped down as a City councilman, more African Americans voted in his district than Mexican Americans.
of Edward Roybal
In 1962, Edward Roybal decided to run for Congress, and there he would represent Boyle Heights for another 30 years. His lasting legacy would be cemented during this time as it became clear that Roybal’s effect on Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, and the nation was profound.
First, as a Congressman, Roybal continued his commitment to the health and well-being of minority communities, a role he began as a tuberculosis educator in Los Angeles before his city council election. In Congress, he secured federal funding for AIDS research and health support for the elderly and other under-represented people.
Second, his daughter Lucille Roybal-Allard, followed him to the U.S. Congress, after a stint in the California legislature, continuing a family tradition of service and commitment to the neighborhood she learned in her father’s local campaigns.
Third, Roybal led efforts to make sure that Latinos were accurately counted by the U.S. Census, resulting in greater Latino electoral representation. He organized the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) in 1960, and began the creation of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) and the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO). Roybal organized the passage of National Hispanic Heritage Week, the 1968 Bilingual Education Act, and the “language minorities” provision of the amended 1975 Voting Rights Act, resulting in greater empowerment.
Fourth, Roybal was a mentor to generations of Latino politicians who followed him into politics, including the next Latino on the Los Angeles City Council, Richard Alatorre, and the first Latina to be elected to that body, Gloria Molina.
Finally, Roybal’s approach to multi-racial coalition-building would be a model for city-wide politics, most notably for the first successful person of color to become mayor, Tom Bradley, as well as future mayors, Antonio Villaraigosa and Eric Garcetti. Bradley himself had worked on Roybal’s initial successful 1949 run for City Council. Today, the future of multi-racial politics and coalition building can be traced back to the mid-20th century rise of Edward Roybal.