1970s Research for the Great Wall of LA
1970s Working Narrative: The Great Wall of Los Angeles
Henry Luce coined the term the American Century as a belief in the future of the United States as the global economic leader and moral champion of the world. As the publisher of both Life and Time magazine, Luce had a tremendous influence on the American popular imagination—the decade of the 1970s puts the ideals of the American century to the test. By the end of that decade, the economic and political structures that had brought wealth and power to the United States following World War II no longer could sustain economic progress, domestic harmony, or international dominance. To better understand the social and political conditions that challenged “domestic harmony” during this decade we must examine the trajectory of radical social movements alongside the rising tide of American Conservatism.
While the 1960s are commonly known for movements of liberation and radical struggle, the 1970s also included very clear markers of civil unrest and public protests against a narrow definition of American democracy. American Indian resistance was palpable during this decade in response to the lasting legacies of U.S. encroachment. Young people who had been failed by the educational system, and were looking for greater access, relevant course offerings, and increased faculty positions initially spurred the occupation of Alcatraz. The occupiers were looking to fundamentally reassess Indian/white relations, reject current Indian policies, reject cycles of poverty, and the creation of Indian institutions, both educational and cultural. It was not a move to liberate the island; rather it was a move to liberate Indians. The images of the occupation of Alcatraz serve as a haunting symbol of American Indian history and struggle, “…a defiant isolated rock surrounded by foreboding seas, a reservation-like piece of real estate with stark conditions, and a prison that represented the incarcerated spirit of Indian people everywhere.” Alcatraz coupled with the BIA takeover and the Second Wounded Knee, reveal that in spite of all the obstacles American Indians faced during this period they were still able to mobilize, and they were able to put forth a new vision of how to deal with their struggles.
The War in Vietnam occurred at a moment of heightened political mobilization and social conflict over protracted issues of racial discrimination, economic inequality, and legal subordination; which all served to amplify the impact of the war. Rosalio Munoz was the first Chicano Student Body President at UCLA and was also chair of the Chicano Moratorium committee. The Chicano Moratorium committee was established to protest the disproportional death of young Chicanos in Vietnam, and some historians suggest that the war in Vietnam politicized the Chicano Community like no other circumstance before. On August 29, 1970 between twenty and thirty thousand Chicanos and Chicanas gathered in Los Angeles to protest the War in Vietnam and what they consider the unjustifiable death of thousands of young men from their neighborhoods. A minor incident a block from Laguna Park, where the protesters had gathered, resulted in Police units forcefully entering the park and igniting a wave of violence and disorder that culminated in over 1,200 officers occupying the Park. What also resulted from this police action was the murder of Ruben Salazar, who was shot in the head with a 10-inch tear gas projectile after he and a companion sought refuge from the police violence in the Silver Dollar Café. Salazar had been the prominent Mexican American journalist in Los Angeles and the controversy surrounding the exact details of his murder are still topic of much speculation considering that Salazar’s reporting had been very critical of the Los Angeles Police department. (see footnote)
Young men of color, especially black and Chicano youth were being drafted at disproportionate rates and enduring the physical, emotional, and psychological tolls of the war. In a speech given at Exposition Park in support of Vietnam veterans Cesar Chavez reminded us all of the paradoxes of war. “In our case thousands and thousands of poor, brown, and black farm workers go off to war to kill other poor farm workers in Southeast Asia.” Moreover what does it reveal about our society that the limited opportunities for young men of color to access education or realize economic opportunity are intimately bound up in military service and promote the subjugation and murder of other poor black and brown people around the world? In Los Angeles you could see Latinos/as nearing 40% of the total population and in fact fueled the economy of the Southern California region had no political representation and no power; at that time they were referred to as the sleeping giant. All of this agitation was precipitated by the fact that we were losing more young men in Vietnam than most other ethnic groups. African-American and Chicanos really provided the blood and flesh that fueled that war/the war machine.
In spite of the meaningful changes that occurred as a result of the CCM, one of the fractures that divided several prominent organizations and helped to diffuse some of the momentum of el movimiento was in fact notions of patriarchy and sexism. This was not confined to the CCM and ultimately resulted in many people across the nation articulating a new vision of America that included a more feminist ideal.
In post-war America many Americans embraced marriage and family as the central sources of personal satisfaction to a greater extent than ever before. The ideology of family engulfed postwar society and promoted the notion of the family wage in which families could and should live solely on the wages of a male breadwinner. Many women had complex, and at times contradictory feelings about these notions of identity and fulfillment, what writer Betty Friedan called the “feminine mystique.” While Friedan’s ideas were significant, her perspective was fraught limitations and as the 1970s progressed many of these issue played out on a national stage. Adding to the debate regarding a woman’s identity was the proposed change the constitution that would have affirmed that “equality under the law” could not be denied because of sex. This proposed change, known as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), resulted in a contentious national debate about “women’s rights.”
As many feminist advocacy groups rallied support for the ERA, a growing conservative sector of the population that was frustrated by perceived attacks on morality sought government help to regulate sexuality, reproduction, and notions of family. Opponents of the ERA, including Phyllis Schlafly, feared that the proposed changes might lead to drafting women into military service, abortion on demand, unisex bathrooms, homosexual marriages, and other unwanted social changes that resonated with many women and men who were disturbed by the rapid transformation of gender roles in the United States. Furthermore, many anti-ERA proponents pointed to the Roe v. Wade decision as way to broaden their pro-life values and extend their public assault on so-called feminist.
In Roe v. Wade the Supreme Court ruled that it was a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy and declared access to abortion a fundamental freedom protected by the constitution, which had been a demand of radical feminist in the struggle for women’s rights. This ruling resulted in robust opposition, and many religious groups organized a “Right to Life” movement which sought to limit and re-criminalize abortion. In fact, many of the Pro-Life groups adopted the language and tactics of the civil rights movement as they picketed abortion clinics and engaged in civil disobedience. In 1976 opponents of the Roe v. Wade decision won an important victory in the passing of the Hyde Amendment, which banned the use of Medicaid funds to pay for abortions, thus restricting the ability of women, especially low-income and women of color to terminate unwanted pregnancies. At stake were not simply abortion laws, but rather beliefs about the definition of life, women’s rights, and their proper role in society.
Madrigal v Quilligan, filed in June of 1975 on behalf of 11 Mexican American women who claimed they were coerced or deceived into being sterilized at County-USC Medical Center reveals the struggle of working-class Mexican-origin women had been coerced into sterilization just minutes or hours after undergoing cesarean deliveries. These procedures were financed by federal agencies and funds were dispersed as part of the family planning initiatives of the War on Poverty. Although the women lost the case it paved the way for major changes to patient consent forms, particularly for patients whose primarily language was not English. The images of a protest at County General Hospital in 1974 captures the struggle aptly with signs that read: “Stop Racist Health Care,” “Wiping out poor people is not the solution to poverty,” “…Genocide,” and “Rich People Cause Poverty – Poor People Live it.”
Concurrent to the national debate over women’s rights, reproductive rights, feminism, and movements for liberation, an alternative perspective developed in the form of a Black feminism. The Combahee River Collective sought to actively struggle against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and understood that these major systems of oppression were interlocking. For these women it was impossible to separate race from class from sex oppression because in their lives they were most often experienced simultaneously. This group was able to demonstrate that Black, Third World, and other working women had been involved in the feminist movement from its inception but both outside forces and racism and elitism within the movement itself served to obscure their participation. As a result of this added repression, these women felt the need to develop a politics that was at its core anti-racist, unlike those of white women, and anti-sexist, unlike those of Black and white men. Their experiences and participation in movements for liberation caused them to create a shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable; a seemingly obvious value or belief, but according to the collective no other ostensibly progressive movement had ever considered their specific oppression a priority or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression.
Debates over gay rights also provoked intense emotion and sharp division because it concerned not only specific legal issues but also larger notions about sexuality, morality, family, and gender roles. In 1971 the Third World Gay Liberation Front developed a manifesto that, more than anything called for the right to self-determination. In this particular case self-determination meant having the right to be gay, not being coerced into being heterosexual, and not being denied basic human rights because of their sexuality. In California in 1978, Proposition 6 was crafted by John Briggs, a conservative anti-gay legislator from Orange County, which sought to bar gay and lesbian schoolteachers and to prohibit public school teachers from speaking favorably about homosexuality in the classroom. However, a campaign led by openly gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk led to its defeat. Tragically, however Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Mascone were both murdered, just weeks later by a homophobic supervisor, Dan White.
In 1973 Tom Bradley was elected the first African American mayor of Los Angeles by winning the election over incumbent Sam Yorty and became the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city elected with an overwhelming white population. Bradley was elected to a record five terms as Mayor and retired in 1993 after twenty years of service. Mayor Bradley spent a lifetime bridging racial barriers and forged important coalitions between ethnic groups in Los Angeles. Mayor Bradley also presided over a period that saw significant gains to the city architecture and transportation. Furthermore, Mayor Bradley also marked a moment of opportunity for many women and racialized groups to rise through the ranks of City Hall employees. The Iconic Image of Mayor Bradley Behind the official City of Los Angeles Seal, reveals the significant yet entangled legacies of a man and a city.
During the 1970s Chicano art continued to flourish, especially in California with the opening of the Mechicano Art Center in East Los Angeles, followed by the establishment of Self Help Graphics in Boyle Heights. In San Francisco, meanwhile, Mujeres Muralistas began to paint murals in the Mission District highlighting the role of women in Latino/a communities. The radical rights revolution throughout the nation was particularly inspiring people in Southern California to put forth a new vision of cultural democracy. In Los Angeles, the 1970s saw the formation of the Social And Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) by Judith F. Baca. SPARC focused on mural programs that could animate public discourse and free expression of the diverse communities of the city without direct official intervention from city officials. The first project of the new nonprofit organization was the Great Wall of Los Angeles. The public art movement and especially mural projects during the 1970s featured the collaboration between artists and young folks of color to reimagine public spaces that better reflected the people who used them. In the first two years of existence, The Citywide Mural Program (the forerunner to SPARC) sponsored over 40 murals in diverse communities all over Los Angeles. Moreover, SPARC demonstrated its leadership in understanding and appreciating the country’s diversity through public artworks that included a participatory process. What Baca and the folks at SPARC were able to is develop was a collaborative process of innovation that brought together artists, historians, community activists, social workers, and young people from the particular communities to promote dialogue and exchange distinct experiences that ultimately resulted in, what Professor Baca calls the public memory of a multi-cultured society.
The first Earth Day was celebrated around the globe on April 22 1970. Environmentalism in the U.S. expanded rapidly in the 1970s and sought to understand conventional ideas of American Life that equated progress with an endless increase in consumption and faith that science, technology, and economic growth would advance social welfare. However, the dynamism of the “ecosphere” coupled with an almost endless production of pollution resulted in confusion about the causes and solutions to this mounting environmental crisis. As people became more aware of the breakdown of links between living things and their soundings, they also began to develop a heightened sense of how relationships that sustained the earth started to falter and in some places stop entirely. Not surprisingly, the concept of environmental racism⎯the idea that non-whites are disproportionately exposed to pollution⎯also surfaced during this period. Pollution concentrations are inevitably the product of relationships between distinct places, including industrial zones, affluent suburbs, working-class suburbs, and downtown areas, all of which are racialized. In Los Angeles, in midst of Earth Day celebrations on the campus of USC Tommy Trojan was outfitted with a gas mask. In part this message brought to light the explicit and sustained environmental damage and pollution that was and continued to be directed at low-income and communities of color, including South Los Angeles and East Los Angeles.
The 1970s was one of only two decades in the 20th century that ended with Americans poorer that when it began. The decade has been characterized as an era of stagflation, a combination of stagnant economic growth and high inflation. Starting in 1973 real wages essentially did not rise for the next 20 years, this economic reality had serious effects on how many Americans imagined their futures. During the mid-to-late seventies, conservative groups generally, but not all, stopped explicit challenges to the radical struggles for racial justice in the United States. Instead, they misappropriated the discourse of freedom and sought to maintain and extend local political and economic control by outwardly challenging the power of the federal government. In California it was the “Tax Revolt” that was imagined as a way for citizens to escape the authoritarianism of big government on over-burdened citizens. This language of individual freedom reverberated throughout the country, appealing especially to the growing, predominantly white, suburban populations that were “escaping” the cities and their “urban” problems. The Bakke case represented the anxiety of white college students seemingly under attack by “unfair” advantages in admissions and financial aid by traditionally underrepresented students. The decade also experienced the institutionalization and implementation of many social and educational programs targeted at underrepresented communities. The supposed narrowing of opportunities for many white Americans directly related to a rise in evangelical and fundamentalist groups—the Moral Majority. These groups ushered in a response to the social liberalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s, coupled with the economic uncertainty that followed. The response by these conservative led factions can be imagined as a “rising tide of conservatism,” the profound (white) washing of the radical and inclusive movements for liberation of the early parts of the 1970s.
The decade of the 1970s came to an end seeing a large proportion of conservative Americans beginning to organize at grassroots levels, seeking to spread conservative doctrines, and running candidates for office even when they had little chance of winning – all aimed at changing policies of local institutions like school boards, town councils, and planning commissions. While the modern civil rights movement and liberation movements of the 1960s helped to spark ethnic revival, the anxiety of many white Americans was a fear of increased competition for housing, jobs, government programs, and college admissions, in what had become a declining economy. Ethnic and religious organizations served as a strategy to “defend” territory and command social resources. What we can surmise from these circumstances is that affirmative action and equal opportunity programs, which were acceptable during times of economic prosperity, came under attack in the later stages of the 1970s when the nation faced the reality of inflation and unemployment. More to the point, special assistance has always been given to particular groups and individuals in this nation, but attitudes toward that assistance definitely changed according to which was receiving it.
Conservatism then can be thought of as a serpent that has snarled and spanned most decades of U.S. history, yet at a moment when that serpent was losing traction and seemingly withering, what actually occurred was a rebirth of conservatism masked/cloaked in the language/discourse of individual freedom and a distinct brand of American Democracy.