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California Cultures

African Americans: Politics and Community (1970s-present)

Questions to Consider

How did the political voice of African Americans change during the post-civil rights era?

How did opportunities change for African Americans in California during this time?


The murder trials finally took their toll. By the early 1970s the Panthers had lost momentum, and so had their call for revolution. A 1971 photograph shows Muhammad Ali speaking to UCLA students about a broader range of topics: boxing, alcohol, narcotics, and his Black Muslim faith, in addition to the Black Panthers.

Social Change Takes Hold

Meanwhile, the ideals the Panthers had fought for were taking hold in the community. African American politicians like California State Assemblyman Willie Brown (shown surrounded by students) were elected and reelected to public office. In 1978, Mervyn Dymally was the Lieutenant Governor of California. The voices of black artists like poet and author Maya Angelou were being heard. And African American entrepreneurs were operating businesses from day care centers to markets.

Building on this platform of progress, African Americans in the late 1970s pressed for more social change. A 1977 photograph shows a march for jobs and housing in Los Angeles on Martin Luther King Day, one of a number of similar marches across the country. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the Humphrey Hawkins Bill, aimed at providing "full employment" for everyone.

By the 1980s, Martin Luther King, Jr., had become a historic figure and a hero. Across the nation, the names of streets — like Santa Barbara Avenue in Los Angeles — were changed to honor him. The man shown in the photograph, Celes King III, was himself an American hero: the founder of Congress for Racial Equality of California (CORE-CA), longtime president of the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP, and a pilot in the famous all-Negro Tuskegee Airman Squadron during World War II.

Rebellion Against Social Conditions

At the same time, crime was becoming an issue in the African American community. Photographs show Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke speaking against fraud to a homeowner's association; and another photograph, taken in 1983, shows residents in South Central Los Angeles demonstrating against crime in their neighborhood.

In 1992, violence erupted in South Central after the acquittal of several white police officers for the beating of black motorist Rodney King. Millions of dollars of damage were done and the lives of many residents were affected. The "Rodney King uprising" has also been called the first multiethnic riot because it included Hispanic Americans and Korean Americans as well as African Americans. Many choose to call these events a "rebellion" against social and economic conditions in the inner city, rather than a "riot," which only emphasizes the violence. This reoccurrence of urban violence surprised many who believed the Civil Rights movement had improved conditions for California's African Americans. Some have noted that although political gains had been made over the years, continuing economic inequalities contributed to escalating tension. The underlying causes of the Watts uprising — underemployment, poverty, segregation, and police harassment — persisted almost 30 years later.

Political and Social Change Today

Nonetheless, the activism, entrepreneurship, and government programs of the 1970s-90s did foster the emergence of a sizeable black middle class in California. A number of African American politicians won important offices, including Thomas Bradley (five-term mayor of Los Angeles), Willie L. Brown, Jr. (State Assemblyman and two-term mayor of San Francisco), and US representatives Augustus Hawkins, Yvonne Braithewaite Burke, Ronald Dellums, Julian Carey Dixon, Mervyn Dymally, Barbara Lee, Juanita Millender-McDonald, and Maxine Waters.

Today, upwardly mobile African Americans have moved from the urban centers of Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco into suburbs and the Central Valley and their ability to work together elect local black politicians has actually weakened. As their voting bloc has dispersed, Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans have grown in numbers and their political power in the state is rising.

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 11:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.4 Write historical investigation reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver oral reports on historical investigations.
2.4 Delivery multimedia presentations.

History-Social Science

Grade 11:

11.11 Students analyze the major social problems and domestic policy issues in contemporary American society.

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

Muhammad Ali speaks at UCLA. May 21, 1971 Willie Brown talks to students on Commons Announcement Poster for Willie Brown. 1972
Day Nursery, Hunters Point. 1972 Maya Angelou and Cecil Williams at Glide Memorial Church, Sunday, July 14, 1974. Martin Luther King Day demonstrators demand increased employment and housing. January 15, 1975
Black enterprise--Interior view of a Muslim market in Los Angeles (Calif. March 23, 1975) Students from South Central Los Angeles ride a school bus to Van Nuys (Calif.) March 20, 1977 Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally and his family. November 7, 1978
President Carter signing the Humphrey-Hawkins Bill. Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act, 1978 The Rev. Thomas Kilgore, Pastor of 2nd Baptist Church at 2412 Griffith Ave. in Los Angeles, April 29, 1979 Yvonne Braithwaite Burke speaks at Homeowners Fraud Prevention dedication, Compton. November 28, 1979
Celes King III favors changing name of Santa Barbara Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Some residents don't. April 12, 1982 South Central residents demonstrate against crime, Los Angeles (Calif.) July 10, 1983 no photograph

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Posters/Visuals (PDF) (Source: Bringing History Home)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)