Mother Courage

Her crowning achievement was helping the Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital in Willowbrook come to fruition in 1972; her greatest disappointment had to be that it shuttered in 2005

Lillian Mobley, the veteran black activist who died last week at 81, was called the mother of South Central by the media and presumably by those close to her. In my nearly 20 years as a reporter in and around South Central, I never heard anyone call her that, but they didn't really need to--she was involved in so many things for so long, the matriarch status was self-evident. It helped that Ms. Mobley (it was hard for me to call her Lillian, like it's hard to call a former, influential teacher by their first name) looked the part--kind but steely, generous but tough and unsparing when it came to advocating the many causes close to her heart. She had white hair and a determined look even when she was at rest, the prototypical no-nonsense grandmother at the center of so many black families who call L.A. home but who are firmly rooted in the South.

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I didn't really meet Ms. Mobley until I started working as a reporter in 1992, but I knew her long before that. She was one of those '60s icons I grew up hearing about through my father, who worked as a consultant for the L.A. county Human Relations Commission; basically that meant he was a full-time activist in the black community on many fronts, starting with education. He had many dealings with Ms. Mobley, to say the least, and he she lived vividly in many of the conversations he regularly had around the house about what I came to call The Struggle.

The Struggle was the ongoing collective effort of ordinary black people like my dad and Ms. Mobley to achieve racial justice in the face of incredible odds against such a thing ever happening. Of course The Struggle went on in other big cities across the country, but it seemed to me that in L.A. it had a particular idealism that went with the image of L.A. as a place receptive to dreams of all kinds and forgiving of the failures of the past. That meant that the Struggle theoretically had a better chance of being realized here than in New Orleans or Arkansas or Texas because the past that had deliberately tied folks down to failure in those places--Jim Crow, segregation, slavery before that-- looked to be less of a barrier on the west coast.

That wasn't entirely true. Still, the spirit of limitless self-creation and self-determination that is part of the L.A. ethos was what drove Ms. Mobley to start and stay involved in so many efforts. Her crowning achievement was helping the Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital in Willowbrook come to fruition in 1972; her greatest disappointment had to be that it shuttered in 2005, plagued by regular revelations in the Times of mismanagement, fraud and questionable patient care. Ms. Mobley argued to the end (as did many people, including me) that despite all this the hospital should be mended, not ended, that the poor and indigent populace it served could not afford to have nothing at all. She kept up a vigil in front of the hospital, a one-woman protest some days.

Ms. Mobley told me once in an unguarded moment that she was troubled by the stagnation of The Struggle. It wasn't just that monuments like King were toppling and public sympathy for the poor was drying up in general. It was that black solidarity itself was on the wane, a sense among blacks that they had common concerns and saw a common future for themselves. This solidarity was a given in the '60s, but now it was a precious commodity; blacks in L.A., never great in number, were dispersing physically and psychically at an alarming rate. "I don't know what's wrong with our people," she said, looking distraught, but I think she knew. Did that knowledge lessen her resolve to make change anyway? Not at all. That was the greatest she left to me, to us, whatever we do for a living and wherever we live.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The photo used on this post by the Los Angeles Times, used under a Creative Commons License via the UCLA's Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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