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The 1970s: a decade of progress


By the 1970s, the racial strife and turmoil of the 1960s had transformed into a social revolution by virtue of the burgeoning feminist, gay liberation, Black power, grey power movements, the Jesus freaks and an overwhelming rejection of the Vietnam War. The 1970s also saw a relaxing of aggressions (a détente of sorts) between Blacks and Whites in forging a unified path to more intrapersonal cooperation and interpersonal communication.

The political capital earned during the previous 30 years of social criticism, protest marches and demonstrations, passage of federal laws and legislative access helped place Tom Bradley of Los Angeles onto the panoply of civil rights legends.

Bradley was the right man to bridge the chasm of racial anxiety. His 1973 election made him only the second African American mayor of a major U.S. city. His 20 years in office marked the longest tenure of any Los Angeles mayor and one of the most prolific in U.S. history.

In 1940, Bradley was one of “just 400 Blacks” among the 4,000-officer Los Angeles Police Department. Patroling the downtown area, Bradley remarked years ago that some department stores would not allow him and his wife Ethel credit, and a number of restaurants didn’t serve Blacks.

“When I came on the department, there were literally two assignments for Black officers,” he said. “You either worked Newton Street Division (in South Los Angeles) which has a predominantly Black community, or you worked traffic downtown. You could not work with a White officer, and that continued until 1964.”

Bradley was one of the first Black lieutenants on the LAPD and used to walk the beat along Central Avenue. Reportedly, one evening a fist-fight erupted between two men outside the famed Dunbar Hotel; one of the combatants saw the 6-foot, 5-inch Bradley strolling up twirling his nightstick: “What’s the problem here, guys? Better straighten up or you know I’ll run ya in.” The two combatants amicably settled their dispute on the spot.

Bradley served 10 years on the City Council, representing 10th District, and lost a mayoral bid in 1969 to incumbent Sam Yorty. Bradley actually held Yorty at bay for much of the campaign, even leading in the polls, but a racially divisive campaign by Yorty enabled his come-from-behind victory.

In 1973, powerful downtown business interests at first opposed the new Bradley administration, but the passage of a 1974 redevelopment plan for the Bunker Hill area resulted in today’s downtown skyline. This convinced influential Westside business leaders and corporate chiefs to align with the “Bradley effect”–a unique, coalition-building political philosophy that brought together the Westside White and Jewish communities, African Americans from South Los Angeles, the Latino community from East Los Angeles and the Asian voting block from L.A.’s northern neighborhoods.

Yet, despite the so-called “Bradley effect,” at work in the City of Angels, liberal social consensus did not necessarily translate at the voting booth. In two gubernatorial runs during the 1980s, Bradley led in Northern California polls, and in the San Diego region head-on against state Attorney General George Deukmejian. But on election day in 1982 these “supporters” voted against Bradley. The phenomenon continued four years later when he tried to unseat Deukmejian; political pollsters and observers regrettably confirmed that California’s “centrist” White liberals were repeatedly reluctant to vote for a Black candidate.

Among Bradley’s accomplishments are the aforementioned downtown skyline; conceptualization/construction of the Metro railway; new trade policies and business agreements within the Pacific Rim, which became a national model and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Tom Bradley died in 1998 at age 80.

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Barbara Jordan in the early 1970s became the first African American woman from the South to serve in the United States House of Representatives. She represented Houston, Texas, and touched countless lives during her years in government and later as a professor at the Lyndon Johnson School of Public Policy in Austin.

Jordan gained national prominence as a member of the Watergate committee that in 1973 drafted two articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. Both as a state senator and a congresswoman, Jordan sponsored bills that championed the poor, the disadvantaged and people of color. On Capitol Hill, she sponsored legislation to broaden the Voting Rights Act to cover Latinos in Texas and other southwestern states. She also worked to extend that law’s authority to those states where minorities had been denied the right to vote and had their rights restricted by unfair registration practices (e.g.. requirements to show a state-issued driver’s license, photo ID or take a literacy test).

Impressed with her eloquence and rising stature within the party, the Democrats selected her to deliver the keynote address at the 1976 national convention. She was the first woman and first African American to do so, and that speech, political theorists attest, helped Jimmy Carter win the presidency by virtue of one of the largest Black turnouts for a national election.

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Longtime Rep. John Conyers (although elected in the 1960s, produced some of his most significant work in the 1970s) has amassed one of Capitol Hill’s most impressive legislative records. Among the bills authored and sponsored by the Michigan democrat in the late 1970s and 1980s, are the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Act, the Alcohol Warning Label Act, the National Voter Registration Act and the Hate Crime Statistics Act. Conyers was the first Black Democratic leader of the House Judiciary Committee and attached crucial civil rights measures to the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, including the Racial Justice Act and the Police Accountability Act.

In the 1990s, Conyers generated the Justice Department’s national study on police brutality and conducted hearings in several cities on police violence, racially motivated violence, sentencing (particularly the sentencing guidelines regarding “crack” cocaine possession in the inner city and power cocaine in the suburbs) white-collar crime and other criminal justice matters.

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Charles Rangel is a veteran Black congressman who has represented Harlem, N.Y., since 1971, serving the same community as did Adam Clayton Powell. Like Powell, Rangel has worked on behalf of the nation’s oldest, most revered Black community, particularly in improving educational opportunities and facilities as well as for the dismantling of old, vermin-infested public housing in favor of new multi-use residential/retail developments. Today the “Village of Harlem” is one of the most refurbished, gentrified communities in the nation, so much so that former President Bill Clinton has his office there. Rangel also came to national prominence as a member of the Watergate committee and received daily television exposure as he helped “peel back” the layers of lies and deceit in the Nixon Administration.

In combat during the Korean War, Rangel earned a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, a Presidential Unit Citation, the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation and three battle stars. Once on Capitol Hill, Rangel would be known for the catch phrase “…and I haven’t had a bad day since.”

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Maya Angelou, Ph.D., has enjoyed a varied career as a singer, dancer, actress, composer and was Hollywood’s first Black female director. She is most famous, though, as a poet, novelist, essayist, editor and playwright. Her most famous book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969) describes her early life in St. Louis, Mo., and in the small town of Stamps, Ark., where she grew up under strict Jim Crow laws. This was one of the best-selling books among African American titles in the 1970s.

One day when Angelou was 7 years old, she was at once cuddled and then raped by her mother’s boyfriend. When the man was murdered by relatives for the crime, Angelou blamed herself and stopped talking for five years.

But her love of language would not be repressed. She blossomed by reading authors like Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Western canonical works by William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe.

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was the first of Angelou’s six autobiographies and is widely taught in schools, although it has faced controversy over its portrayal of race, sexual abuse and violence. Angelou’s use of fiction-writing techniques (dialogue and plot or a postmodern “stream of consciousness”) was innovative in the 1970s and helped, in part, to complicate the genre’s relationship with truth and memory.

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Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, Ph.D., is among the most influential American authors of the past half-century. Although Morrison’s writing is not autobiographical, she fondly alludes to her past (“Sula,” 1973 and “Song of Soloman,” 1977) once stating, “I am from the Midwest, so I have a special affection for it. My beginnings are always there … no matter what I write, I begin there. It’s the matrix for me. Ohio also offers an escape from stereotyped Black settings. It is neither plantation nor ghetto.”

Morrison often works in a gothic style patterned after the early Romantic or Celtic “magic” much like one would find in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” in which “location” and “place” among characters is defined within a ghost-like or spiritual “limbo” where interaction between the “spirit” and “flesh” (the dead and the living) is normal. An earlier work, “The Bluest Eye” (1970) is the story of a young girl who goes insane and though the novel was well received by critics, it failed commercially. Morrison won a Pulitzer Prize for the 1987 novel “Beloved,” which became a popular motion picture.

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Prior to winning the Pulitzer Prize for “The Color Purple,” Alice Walker in 1973 published “In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women” and her second book of poetry, “Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems.” These works are often a staple of the new, independent Black woman who battles racism in the boardroom and sexism in the bedroom. During this period, Walker also wrote and published a children’s book, “Langston Hughes: An American Poet,” and briefly edited Ms. Magazine.

In later years, Walker has battled LymeDisease, but her prolific writing style has not suffered. These later works include “The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult,” and a collection of political essays named “Anything We Can Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism.”
Quincy Jones produced and Steven Spielberg directed the making of Walker’s novel “The Color Purple” into a movie and, although this film was a box-office hit in 1985, was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it received none.

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Angela Davis, Ph.D., the former UCLA political science professor and radical Black activist, has utilized great influence promoting women’s rights and racial justice. In 1970, Davis was arrested as a suspected conspirator in the aborted attempt to free Black Panther George Jackson from a courtroom in Marin County. The guns used were registered in her name (including one pistol allegedly found in Jackson’s large Afro). She was eventually acquitted of all charges, but was briefly on the FBI’s most wanted list. At that time, Gov. Ronald Reagan vowed that Davis would never teach again in the University of California system.

Davis was often associated with the Black Panthers and with the Black Power movement in general. She joined the Communist Party shortly after King’s assassination, was active with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and, in 1980, ran as vice president on the Communist Party’s presidential ticket.

Among Davis’ published works are “If They Come in the Morning” (1971), “Women, Race and Class” (1983) and “Women, Culture and Politics” (1990).

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The Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) was a 1970s multiracial militant group with a broad slogan: “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.” Founded in Berkeley in 1973, the group was led by Donald David DeFreeze, who changed his name to Cinque Mtune after the famous rebellion leader on the “Amistad” slave ship in 1841.

In 1973, the SLA reportedly murdered Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster (in part for supporting photo IDs at Oakland schools) and the next year kidnapped 19-year-old publishing heiress Patty Hearst. Among their ransom demands, the SLA had the Hearst Corp. provide food for impoverished Oakland schoolchildren; a rifle-toting Patty Hearst joined the organization in a San Francisco bank robbery, subsequently changing her name to “Tania.” In May 1974, DeFreeze and five other SLA members were killed in a South L.A. shootout with the LAPD. Hearst was later pardoned by President Jimmy Carter.

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The wide approval of comedian Flip Wilson and his self-deprecating style of comedy suggested the acceptability of exploitive racial humor. Television producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin turned this suggestion into an industry. Working together as Tandem Productions, Lear and Yorkin developed several Emmy-winning situation comedies including “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons” “Good Times” and “What’s Happening.”

The comedic formula developed by the duo was a microcosm of that historic synthesis achieved during the 1970s with regard to Blacks on TV. On the one hand, there was exposure of African American actors–more roles, more employment, more Black themes–but there was almost total relegation of Blacks to comedies, reverting back to the stereotypical portrait of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” in the early 1950s.

Just as African Americans had been portraying the clowns and buffoons of the American entertainment industry since the 19th century, they appeared in the 1970s as the latest embodiment of a format or “comfort level” traditionally acceptable to White audiences.

By any other definition, African Americans in television comedy had entered what might be called an “age of new minstrelsy” where the venerable “coon” character–that rascalish, loud, pushy and conniving stereotype–was strongly achieved in lead characters such as Sherman Hemsley’s boisterous George Jefferson; Jimmy Walker’s grinning, jaw-jerking J.J. Evans on “Good Times,” and Whitman Mayo’s lethargic Grady Wilson on “Sanford and Son” and “Grady.” This controversy caused “Good Times” star Esther Rolle to threaten to quit the series unless Walker’s character was written with the dignity befitting a Black teenager.

African American viewers particularly enjoyed the Lear-Yorkin comedy product. In the summer of 1976, the Arbitron market-research organization surveyed Black viewers in the 15 leading market areas. The top three programs starring Blacks were Redd Foxx’s “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times;” these shows were also among the top five in viewer ratings throughout the decade.

Flip Wilson not withstanding; there was a general failure of Blacks to gain a wide audience in comedy-variety formats. Bill Cosby, Diahann Carroll, Richard Pryor, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Redd Foxx, the Jackson Five, Melba Moore and Clifton Davis, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. and Ben Vereen all had one-hour variety shows that did not last beyond the then-typical 13-week cutoff. Among the artists who bypassed network television for syndicated contracts were the “Rosey Grier Show,” the “Barbara McNair Show,” the “George Kirby Comedy Hour” and, perhaps, the best-received first-run syndicated program hosted by an African American, Sammy Davis Jr.’s 1975 venture “Sammy and Company.”

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In motion pictures, many of the Black exploitation or “Blaxploitation” films were generally “B” movies in terms of plot, production quality and marketing beyond the specific audience. These movies featured a Black hero or heroine, Black supporting characters, a predominantly Black urban setting, a display of Black sexuality, excessive violence and a contemporary rhythm and blues soundtrack (e.g.. Isaac Hayes’ 1971 Oscar-winning score for “Shaft” directed by Gordon Parks and starring Richard Roundtree). Blaxploitation films were made across varying genres, often including popular ex-athletes such as Jim Brown, Bernie Casey, Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly. A number of African American women starred in these urban action-adventure films, among them Tamara Dobson, Pam Grier and Theresa Graves.

Besides the first of the “Shaft” trilogy, other noteworthy Black dramas during this era include “Sounder” (1972) with Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield; “Buck and the Preacher” (1972) with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, and “The Great White Hope” (1970) with James Earl Jones portraying boxing champion Jack Johnson.

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Traditionally, the print and television news media in large metropolitan areas used only White reporters, editors and anchors. Beginning in the 1970s, the old method of placing one to two White men in the “anchor chair” had given way to more women, more people of color; there was an industrywide rejection of the so-called “deferential” woman or minority sitting next to the sage, older White news authority. Thus, the 1970s had possibly the largest contingent of working African American journalists in newspaper and TV news history.

Among these local and national journalists were A.S. “Doc” Young, Brad Pye Jr., Bob Maynard, Lem Tucker, Stan Duke, Ken Jones, Larry McCormick, “Fast” Eddie Alexander, Larry Carroll, Warren Wilson, Max Robinson, Carroll Simpson and Ed Bradley.

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In music, one Saturday-morning television show showcased the top Black artists in the industry. From Al Green to Ziggy Marley, “Soul Train” was the urban counterpart to Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” and was the early equivalent to MTV. Host Don Cornelius died earlier Wednesday at age 75. (See cover story.)

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In the decades between Althea Gibson and the Williams sisters of Compton, Arthur Ashe was the most successful Black tennis player of the generation. Ashe made history in 1975 by defeating hard-hitting left-hander Jimmy Connors for the Wimbledon title. “I couldn’t find an opening,” Connors said afterward. “Whether I served wide balls or kicks, he was there. Everything he did was good.”

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a New York City basketball legend years before he played for John Wooden at UCLA. Although freshmen were ineligible to play varsity sports, Lou Alcindor, Abdul-Jabbar’s given name, gave Wooden a preview of his forthcoming dominance by leading the freshman team to an easy 75-60 win over the Bruin’s varsity, which was then the defending NCAA champion.

Once on the varsity, Abdul-Jabbar led UCLA to three consecutive NCAA championships and was then the first selection overall in the NBA draft, going to the Milwaukee Bucks. He was named the 1970 “Rookie of the Year” and led Milwaukee to the 1971 NBA title. Abdul-Jabbar was traded in 1975 to the Los Angeles Lakers and led the “purple and gold” to NBA titles in 1980, ’82, ’85, ’87 and ’88.

During his career, Abdul-Jabbar was a considered a “difficult interview” because of a perceived racial animosity toward the White media.

Jamaal Wilkes, who played at UCLA a few years after Abdul-Jabbar and was a teammate on the Lakers’ “Showtime” era of the 1980s, explained his friend this way: “Kareem was never a ‘rah-rah’ type of guy,” Wilkes said. “He could give and take a good joke; he preferred to do his talking on the court. Many people believed that he had a militant attitude, but that is not true. Like many of us during that era, he was concerned about civil rights, the Vietnam War. What was confused (as) arrogance or a “chip on his shoulder” was, in reality, a thoughtful, sensitive man.”

Along the way, Abdul-Jabbar has appeared in feature films such as Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” (1971), “The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh (1979) and the 1980 comedy “Airplane.” After Abdul-Jabbar became a best-selling author with the novels “Giant Steps” (1983), “Kareem” (1990), “Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African American Achievement” (1996) and “A Season on the Reservation: My Sojourn with the Mountain Apaches (2000) reflecting on his one season-at one dollar salary-coaching at a Southwestern Indian Reservation.

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O.J. Simpson broke the all-time rushing record for one season with 2,003 yards for the 1973 Buffalo Bills. Simpson was not an immediate professional success, after his stellar years at USC.

The Bills team did not have an all-pro offensive line that could regularly spring the running back loose; they also had the misfortune of being in the same division as the Miami Dolphin who, in 1972, became the only team to win the Super Bowl undefeated for the season.

Simpson was NFL Player of the Year in 1972, ’73 and ’75; played in six Pro Bowls and was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985. After football, Simpson appeared in a number of motion pictures, including the regular role of “Officer Norberg” in the “Police Squad” series of comedies.

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En-route to breaking Babe Ruth’s record for all time home runs, in 1974 Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves seemed to revive the dark days of insults and racism that had manifested itself upon Jackie Robinson almost 30 years prior. Aaron and his wife received death threats that spring as he closed in on Ruth’s record of 714 lifetime home runs. At that time, Ruth’s widow, Rachel Hodgson, called Aaron to encourage him to break the record and to ignore prank calls at home, catcalls in public and an intrusive, still-bigoted press.

Against left-hander Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 8, 1974, Aaron broke the record at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium and said afterwards that “… I’m sure glad to get this behind me. It (the controversy) has been a distraction for my family and my teammates.”

Aaron was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982 with 97.8 percent of ballots cast in his favor. When owner Ted Turner subsequently hired him to be the vice president and director of player personnel, Aaron became the first minority to have a position in upper-level management in the history of Major League Baseball.