The Great Black Way

After the Civil War African-Americans were looking for more opportunities which led to a mass migration out of the South to the North and West where they would be able to find work and more easily integrate into the dominate white society (Horton and Horton, 228).

Though the South was defeated in the war, Republicans made many exceptions at African-Americans’ expense, such as placing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments under state control, in order to placate Democrats and try to unify the country (Horton and Horton, 226). This enabled Democrats to gain control over political offices and push their agenda on the rest of the country resulting in legalization of Jim Crow segregation after the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 (Horton and Horton 229). In his book The Great Black Way, the author R. J. Smith recounts how African-Americans arrived in Los Angeles, dealt with segregation, and chose leaders who were not normally at the forefront of the segregation battle. These leaders were critical of earlier African-American figures from the East like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Washington espoused a bottom up approach in which blacks would teach others who would then spread the process while Du Bois favored a top down approach which promoted a Talented-Tenth, the exceptional African-Americans who would be able to change circumstances for the black community. In Los Angeles Washington and Du Bois’s ideas were carried out, and Angelenos’ worked within the system, however, when this failed African-Americans resorted to protests and violence to finally capture the attention needed to address racial segregation.

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was born a slave in the South, and therefore had a different view of how to handle integration. He spoke of working within the system to gain the respect of whites by proving their worth. (Lecture, 10/22). At just 25 he became the first leader of the Tuskegee Institute which sought to teach industrial trades along with academic education so that students could then go to their communities and teach what they had learned (Horton and Horton, 227). Many say he took a defeatist approach, but Washington was living in the South during one of the worst lynching waves in history and was trying to help his community survive through extreme conditions (Horton and Horton, 230). Washington had many critics, he was a leader before many of the known racial leaders throughout history were born, and it was easy for them to criticize the past. Even though he lived and died before the turmoil of Los Angeles in the 1930s and 40s, his ideas carried on. The Tuskegee Institute served as a great resource for African-Americans and is a private, black university today. At the onset of WWII the Tuskegee Institute famously trained the first black fighter pilots in the Army Air Corps (Smith, 61). Washington’s views were to help the people from the bottom up and give them a foundation from which they could grow.

One of Washington’s critics was W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), an abolitionist who wanted to fight for freedom. He believed in education and that blacks needed a liberal arts background (Lecture, 10/22). Du Bois grew up in a small Northern town, which was largely integrated, and did not have to endure the severe oppression those in the South did. Nonetheless, he still encountered discrimination and fought to put an end to it. His plan of action was a Talented-Tenth, highly educated African-Americans who would pave the way for others and open up job opportunities. In contrast to Washington, his was a top down approach to the problem. As one of the leaders of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Du Bois and others were able to take legal action to advance desegregation at a national level. For example, the NAACP was the driving force that argued in the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 (Lecture, 11/10). This case led to the court ruling that separate classrooms were unequal and that de jure racial segregation was unconstitutional as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth amendment (Lecture, 11/12).

The culture of African-Americans in Los Angeles at the outset of the 20th Century was very different from that of the East. As Charlotta Bass, the editor of the California Eagle, wrote in the 1930s “[Los Angeles] was a sober residential and business settlement” (Smith, 29). No one cared about the Talented-Tenth who were leading the Harlem Renaissance at this time, feeling that these artists merely amused whites and did not show an accurate portrayal of the African-American population. They felt that these African-American elites had no real affect on their lives and the circumstances of their treatment (Smith, 26-28). The first black immigrants to Los Angeles were mostly educated and came looking for work (Smith, 23). Because of the growing population, the African-American community was formed and separated by de facto segregation from whites with the attitude that blacks should “avoid that block, that cop, that hour” (Smith, 43). African-Americans were able to form a community, located around Central Avenue, where they could maintain businesses but were subject to police brutality in their community and especially in white areas. For example, when a Mexican girl was arrested in front of a black business and several African-American men tried to defend her and fought the officer, later that night “over a dozen vice squad cops” came back to the business and lined up all of the blacks that were inside to beat them one by one (Smith, 19). Though there were run ins with the police the population was still controlled enough that African-Americans could stay in their confined communities and continue to build their local economy. This was an example of African-Americans following Washington’s ideal of building personal wealth and going along with the rules in the hope that whites would later accept them.

At the start of the Second World War, African-Americans were being drafted to join the military but still not given equal rights to fight, have equal pay, or be able to further their military careers. In a letter to the Pittsburgh Courier, the most popular black newspaper in the country, 15 mess attendants stationed on the U.S.S. Philadelphia wrote of the conditions and treatment of blacks in the armed forces. They described their jobs as “domestic servants picking up after the white man” (Smith, 43). African-Americans began to question why they were remaining loyal to a country that treated them as second-class citizens and helping fight injustice abroad when there was discrimination happening at home (Smith, 25). Black leaders decided to form a mass movement to change the laws and A. Philip Randolph was able to organize it (Smith, 45). He issued a challenge in the California Eagle to end discrimination in the armed forces as well as defense factories and threatened a march on Washington of 100,000 blacks if needs were not met. Once the movement gained momentum, the NAACP agreed with the approach (Smith, 47). This was one of the first times African-Americans from Los Angeles were trying to work with those in power to change law for the betterment of the black community.

After the formation of Bronzeville, formerly Little Tokyo, the influx in population became so great that living conditions worsened with not much being done about it (Smith, 147). Because there were so many people this became the perfect recipe for what Los Angeles ghetto’s are most known for, random acts of violence. Many of those who had been living in Central Avenue were used to getting by under Washington’s mode of minding their own business and staying within their community lines. But as African-Americans from the South migrated West, they were no longer under the restrictions of the Jim Crow laws and were ready to use any means necessary to get equal treatment.
“When a white owner of the Paramount Café on the north end of the Avenue refused service to a group of blacks, he probably gave it no thought at all, for it was something he had likely done many times before. But when they rose up and tore the place apart, perhaps he gave it a second thought.” (Smith, 147)

In the end the idealistic approaches of Washington and Du Bois proved to be ineffectual for the every day life of African-Americans on Central Avenue. Both leaders of the East criticized one another, but still had a similarity. They tried to change laws and work within the system to end discrimination and to change the feeling whites felt toward African-Americans. African-Americans in Los Angeles learned that even if they changed a law, it did not mean it would be implemented. And that no matter how much time they gave whites to recognize their worth, whites would continue to exploit their labor for economical gain and to maintain power. It was when they came together that African-Americans realized the power they had. “Power and pressure…lie and flow from the masses…the masses united for a definite purpose,” said by Randolph (Smith, 46). Though the legal end to segregation was decades away by the end of the 1940s blacks were talking back and no longer (Smith, 277).