Archives & Activists

It's as true about archivists and archives as it is about activists—their influence often exceeds their fame. Southern California activists have profoundly shaped regional—and national—history through their advocacy. Of course we see the legacy of activists partly in improved social conditions, greater equality, and the cleaner environment for which they strove, but many also left behind detailed records of their work, which today are preserved in the archives of Southern California. Through these primary source materials on yesterday's controversies—some still simmering, L.A.'s archives offer the region a historical perspective on the debates of today.

Southern California Library for Social Studies and ResearchOne rich source of information about Southern California activism is the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, which documents communities' struggle for justice and the history of radical and progressive politics in Southern California. Among the library's collections are the papers of Charlotta Bass (pictured to the left), a powerful African American civil rights leader in Los Angeles who published the California Eagle, one of the oldest African American newspapers in the American West. Through her newspaper, Bass fought for greater racial equality and led several successful campaigns against employment discrimination, including in the massive Boulder Dam project.

In 1952, Bass made history as the first African American woman nominated for vice president when the Progressive Party chose her as a running mate to lawyer Vincent Hallinan. Created four years earlier as a vehicle for the leftist candidate Henry Wallace, a former vice president to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Progressive Party was, in Bass's words, "one political world that could provide a home big enough for Negro and white, for native and foreign born, to live and work together for the same ends--as equals." In her acceptance speech, Bass acknowledged the historical significance of the moment:

It is a great honor to be chosen as a pioneer. And a great responsibility. But I am strengthened by thousands on thousands of pioneers who stand by my side and look over my shoulder--those who have led the fight for freedom--those who led the fight for women's rights--those who have been in the front line fighting for peace and justice and equality everywhere. How they must rejoice in this great understanding which here joins the cause of peace and freedom.

Bass (on left) campaigning in 1952 with Hallinan (right) and the Progressive Party's candidate for U.S. Senator from California, Reuben Borough. Courtesy Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research

Campaigning on a platform that opposed the United States' Cold War policies and advocated for racial and gender equality, Bass and Hallinan finished third in national voting behind the Republican and Democratic tickets.

Private correspondence and papers are important sources of historical information about activists, but public communications also reveal how activists used persuasive words and images to draw others to their causes.

 Courtesy Center for the Study of Political GraphicsHeadquartered in Los Angeles, the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG) is a unique organization that focuses on posters related to political movements for peace and social justice. Although its extensive research archive is international in scope, the center holds among its more than 75,000 posters many related to Southern California activism.

The poster to the left, for example, was produced by the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace in response to the 1969 oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast. The spill served as a rallying cry for environmental activists and was a contributing factor in the creation of new environmental regulation, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, CSPG Founder and Executive Director Carol A. Wells explains:

This poster was produced following the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which was the largest oil spill in United States waters at the time. It now ranks third after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 1989 Exxon Valdez spills, and remains the largest oil spill to have occurred in the waters off California. The spill had a significant impact on marine life in the Channel, killing thousands of sea birds, as well as marine animals such as dolphins, elephant seals, and sea lions. The public outrage engendered by the spill resulted in numerous pieces of environmental legislation within the next several years, legislation that forms the legal and regulatory framework for the modern environmental movement in the U.S.

Artist: Favianna Rodríguez. Courtesy Self Help GraphicsThe archives of Self Help Graphics & Art, a Los Angeles-based center dedicated to supporting Latino artists and printmakers, are another valuable source on the history of Los Angeles activism. Stored and maintained by the Donald Davidson Library at the University of California Santa Barbara, the center's archives chronicle the history of Chicano activism from the 1970s through 2003. Artist Favianna Rodríguez created the serigraph poster, Community Control of the Land, pictured to the right, at Self Help Graphics in 2002. The poster reflected fears that the multi-billion dollar redevelopment of the Figueroa Corridor, a stretch of the street connecting USC to downtown Los Angeles, would violate local residents' rights.

There are many other institutions associated with L.A. as Subject whose archives contain an abundance of activism-related materials. These include the Center for Oral and Public History at California State University, Fullerton; Educational Communications; the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives; and County of Los Angeles Public Library's Asian Pacific Resource Center, Black Resource Center, and Chicano Resource Center.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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