The history of the Golden State is replete with social and economic struggles that spawned political movements of every stripe and flavor. From the earliest days of our recorded history to the 21st century, California has often led the way in creating reform movements. It's also been a hotbed of radical thinking, both on the right and the left. Here's a brief and far from all-inclusive timeline of some California events illustrating the state's history of activism.
1775: Kumeyaay Rebellion Some seven years after the founding of the mission at San Diego, native Kumeyaay warriors attacked a small Spanish force there and set fire to the mission buildings. Other native insurrections, including one by the Chumash band in 1824, were attempts to prevent Spanish colonialism from destroying native cultures. Needless to say, they all failed.
1846: Bear Flag Rebellion Thirty-three American settlers from Sonoma declared a republic, captured the Mexican commandant, and named William B. Ide governor. His term lasted 25 days, until US General John C. Fremont arrived on the scene, took command, and replaced the Bear Flag with the Stars and Stripes.
1877: The Workingman's Party
This anti-Chinese immigrant organization was led by an Irish immigrant, Dennis Kearney. His xenophobia was popular among many white Californians at the time, and contributed to often violent attacks on Chinese immigrants, many of whom had been employed building railroads. Kearney and his Workingman's party were also highly critical of the powerful Central Pacific Railroad. Kearney pursued an unsuccessful political career, and eventually faded from the scene. But he and his group were instrumental in gaining passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which remained in effect until it was repealed in 1943.
1890's-1920: Hiram Johnson & The Progressives
Toward the end of the 19th century, the Southern Pacific Railroad had created a virtual transportation monopoly in California. It also controlled both the Republican and Democratic parties in the state, and used its political and economic clout to eliminate competitors. Inspired by the earlier Anti-Monopoly Party, California progressives started organizing in the 1880's to reform government, create anti-trust legislation and secure labor rights. A San Francisco prosecutor, Hiram Johnson, became a leader of the progressives, and was elected governor in 1910. Walker successfully implemented such reforms as direct election of Senators (they had previously been appointed by the Legislature.) He also campaigned for women's sufferage. But Johnson's most influential reform was the institution of California's initiative and referendum process, which radically changed the nature of politics in the Golden State.
1930's: Capital vs. Labor and The Depression
From the plight of dust bowl migrants, to collisions between labor unions and management, California was a crucible of unrest during the '30's. Migrants from Mexico who had worked in the fields for years were suddenly competing with displaced farmers from Oklahoma. In the cities, industrial employers took advantage of the labor surplus by cutting wages and ignoring unsafe working conditions. In 1934 California longshoremen walked off the docks, triggering riots, followed by a general strike that lasted almost 3 months. It led to unionization of ports up and down the west coast. The dockworkers unions also were among the first to embrace black and Asian workers, and their organizing across racial lines set the stage for the United Farm Workers movement of the 1960's.
1945-1960: Post-War Prosperity and Problems
During the war in California, African-American, Latino and Asian workers were in great demand. But as many white soldiers returned from the war, the economic and social progress made by many minority groups hit a wall. Some progress was made. Mexican-American organizers helped elect a Latino, Ed Roybal to the LA City Council. Labor leader Cesar Chavez began creating the roots of the United Farm Workers. But segregation in California was still the law, enforced by racial covenants in housing, and by legislation preventing inter-racial marriages.
Meanwhile, the Cold War launched a new "Red Scare." In California, the focus was on rooting out alleged communists in the entertainment industry. But the anti-communist mood made many suspicious of labor unions and social activism in general, and promoted a culture of unquestioning conformity. The 1950's also marked the rise of conservatism in Southern California, often led by activist housewives, such as Stephanie Williams, who founded the American Public Relations Forum.
1964: American Nazi Party in Glendale
Many citizens of Glendale were aghast when George Lincoln Rockwell chose their suburban town as the Western headquarters for his American Nazi Party. Rockwell was quoted as saying he picked the city because "it's a white man's town." Rockwell, a former US Navy Commander, changed the name of his organization to the National Socialist White People's Party shortly before he was murdered by an expelled member in 1967. But the Glendale office, on Colorado Blvd., remained open until the early 1980's.
1965-1975: Cesar Chavez and the Grape Boycott
As a charismatic and tireless leader, Cesar Chavez directed a long and bitter battle to win better wages and working conditions for farm workers. Chavez cut his teeth as a political organizer, and learned the power of the boycott. He used this technique, and his ability to gather support from a wide variety of groups, to organize what may have been the most widespread boycott in US history.
Reaching far beyond California, Chavez and his United Farm Workers convinced housewives across the country to leave table grapes out of their shopping carts. It took 10 long years and not one, but two boycotts, until growers signed contracts with workers that provided them with living wages and substantial benefits.
1964-1965 Free Speech Movement
In the fall of 1964, a number of UC Berkeley students returned to campus after spending the summer registering African American voters in the South. They began soliciting donations, and ran afoul of University rules which prohibited such activity. Throughout the fall, students began organizing demonstrations, demanding the right to engage in political speech and action. In December, students occupied a school building. Almost 800 were arrested. That triggered wider protests that effectively shut down the University. In 1965 a number of reforms were introduced allowing political speech, and the actions by the students were seen as a precursor to student activism of the late 60's and early 70's.
1966-1976: The Black Panther Party
Founded in Oakland, and espousing to defend African Americans from police brutality, the Black Panthers were at the vanguard of the Black Power movement. Although they organized social programs, such as medical clinics, breakfast kitchens for children, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, those activities were overshadowed by their firebrand rhetoric and militant behavior. In the late 60's and 70's armed confrontations between Panthers and police resulted in 19 deaths - nine of officers and 10 of party members. By the mid-70's the Panthers had splintered into factions and faded as a political and social force.
1978: Taxpayers Revolt & Proposition 13
After 30 years of general prosperity and population growth, inflating property values were creating large property tax bills for many homeowners. Many retired Californians were unable to afford to stay in homes they had bought many years before. Proposition 13 was an initiative aimed at limiting property taxes to 1% of assessed value, and limiting the amount the assessed value could be increased. Sponsored by activists Paul Gann and Howard Jarvis, it was approved by a 65% margin in an election that drew in more than two-thirds of all registered voters. Proponents of the initiative say it has saved homeowners more than $500 billion in taxes. Opponents blame it for a wide variety of governmental and social problems, from declines in education to higher regressive taxes such as sales taxes and user fees.