Tom Bradley, Mayor of Los Angeles
April 16, 1984
There Are No Impossible Dreams for Possibility Thinkers
Some people asked me why I was coming to Kansas State University. I assume that the reason they asked that question was that very few make the connection between the heartland of this nation, Kansas, its great agricultural reputation, and the state of California.
I have to remind them that California's number one industry is agriculture. Most think of our high technology industries; aerospace, the movie industry, the electronics industry, the many industries that make up our great state and they somehow fail to make a connection between what happens in our cities and what happens on the farms, both of California and the rest of this nation. Just as you in Kansas provide much of the food not only for this nation but for other parts of the world, California has done a remarkable job in that fashion.
And one of my main concerns is that somehow our children in particular, as well as the housewives who go to the supermarket to do their shopping, don't make that connection. They somehow think that the material shows up automatically on those shelves, and on the counters there at the supermarket, and they fail to understand what a tremendous linkage there is between the urban centers of this nation and the farmlands which produce the products that help us to maintain our stability.
Recently, I launched a program in our city working with the California Farm Bureau Federation and with the California Women in Agriculture to help better inform the people of our community. Just last week, as one such example of that educational effort, we brought from some of the surrounding communities members of the 4-H clubs and farmers with some of their animals, to one of the inner city schools, where the youngsters were bug-eyed as they watched these animals.
You should have seen the looks on their faces as they petted the lambs and the goats, the little ones in particular. What a thrill it was for them not only to see a cow, but to milk one. You can imagine what a difference that's going to make in their understanding and their comprehension of how we are one people tied together in so many ways. But that's the value of that kind of an effort, and I've been very pleased that we've been able to make a beginning in that kind of information process. So there is that connection between Tom Bradley, Los Angeles, California, and Kansas State University.
The other connection, and I suppose this is more persuasive, the one reason why I'm really here: Dr. Acker referred to our having met in 1967 in Germany, and we've remained friends since that time.
Over the years, he has asked, he has invited, he has pleaded, he has implored, he has demanded that I come here and visit with him and his wife, Shirley, and also to speak to you. I must tell you, your president is very persistent. He finally got his way, and here I am.
I'm greatly honored to be considered one of the speakers at the Landon Lecture Series. Governor Landon is, I suppose, one of the most admired and respected men in the whole field of American politics, and it is a great honor to have been requested and then to receive the great privilege of being a part of this lecture series. I hope that it will not come as a disappointment to you, but I have not laid out any well-prepared statement or speech. You will not get any profound message. I hope that I will be able to give you something that will be a practical example that can be of use to many young people in particular.
As I look about this country, I hear the expression of despair from so many. When I hear from young people in particular, "Well, you know, nothing's going to happen based upon my participation in politics." Not much has changed in this country. We're not making much progress, and generally, they're looking at history in the context of the past year. We of course know that you've got to measure history over a longer period of time. So it is my hope that today I can in some way, by some personal examples, give some impression of how I think one person can make a difference, and how the efforts of that one person multiplied a million fold can make a difference, not only in our society, but in humankind.
I believe that each of us has an obligation to leave our society a far wiser, far richer, far better society than we found it. If each of us can just fulfill half of that obligation through our own commitment, then I think the future is going to be bright.
In the task of changing society, making improvements, of achieving progress for ourselves as well as for our country, I believe that there is a way to look at the obstacles that you are confronted with in life, and if you believe that it is possible, if you are determined enough, I think that you can make a change. I think that you can overcome those obstacles, and I believe that in the end, your impossible dreams can come true.
I have selected "The Impossible Dream" as my favorite song, because my whole life has been a living out of what one might say has been the impossible dream.
Let me start with my birthplace, Calvert, Texas, a little town in Texas where my family worked as sharecroppers with little hope for the future for themselves or their children. At the end of the month, they owed more than they had made during that past month.
They determined that if life was to be any better for them or their children, they had to leave Texas, and so we started our trek to the West. California was the land of golden opportunity. It was the land of promise and hope. So that was where we headed. By the time we got there, I must tell you, the experience through which we went in my early childhood, I went there at the age of seven, there wasn't much in the way of any hope. Things were tough, especially for those who were poor, economically depressed, or of minority extraction. Little in the way of symbols of success to which a black youngster could point and say, "That person made it, so can I."
And so it did take a great deal of faith and confidence, a belief in oneself to permit me to go out each and every day, to face the world and to have any sense of confidence that things were going to change.
One of the things that my mother and father drilled into me, and I'm ever grateful to them for it, since they had no formal education, fifth grade having been the highest achievement for either one of them was the importance of education, its value, its ability to serve as a tool, a key to opening up the doors of opportunity.
So they kept drilling into my head the fact that I must go to college, I must get a good education, and will you believe me, in those days, the height of the Depression, there was hardly any idea how I might somehow get into college, to say nothing of having that college education do very much for me in the way of producing a life of success and happiness. But I believed what they said. I studied everything I could get my hands on, and by the time I reached junior high school, in preparing my program for the balance of the junior high school career, I had to make a determination as to whether it was going to be an academic course or a commercial course or whatever.
And when I indicated that I wanted an academic course, my counselor said, "I don't know why you're doing this. You're wasting my time." Black youngsters at that time were lucky if they got out of high school. It was a waste in that person's judgment to take an academic course preparing me for college when there was so little chance I would get there.
But I was a stubborn one. I don't believe, I won't listen to, I'm not going to follow that kind of advice. I took the academic course. At that time, I was a newspaper delivery boy. By the time I got to high school, I determined that I was not going to be able to continue that job if I were going to find the means to go to college, because I was a pretty good athlete, and I wanted to go out for high school athletics, hoping that some day that might be my entry into college.
My mother willingly accepted that decision, though she had never seen a football or football game or a track meet in her life. But what impressed her was that if her son wanted it, that's what she wanted. And she took on an extra job just to make it possible for me to give up mine and to follow a career in athletics. And as a consequence of that experience, having been the top track man, quarter miler, I did a few other things as well, but having been the foremost quarter miler in the city, and having been selected as an all-city football player, the future as far as getting into college was pretty well assured, and I was recruited and went to UCLA, and a whole new world opened up for me.
I had been to a high school that had a campus of about 1,500 students, only 100 of them black. There were the usual kinds of expressions of discrimination, the inability to get into service clubs, being restricted to one particular service group. There were such expressions of discouragement all around me that one sometimes wondered how to overcome that, but it was determination that did it. And as a result of that experience, I really got my first entry into politics. I ran for the office of president of our boys' league at that school, something that was unheard of for a black or any other minority. Just as they told me then, "You can't do it, you can't make it, it isn't possible," I refused to believe them, and I guess I've lived that way all my life people telling me what I couldn't do, I being determined I was going to show them I could, "Yes, I can," and I did.
But it was that experience that led to UCLA, which as I indicated to you, did open up a whole new life for me, new friends, new opportunities, new exposures to the environment in which I went to school and then began to live. This is something that I shall ever be grateful for, because I think that had I not done so, the pattern of my life would have followed that of many of my other schoolmates who later became misfits in society because they gave up hope. Many of them wound up in the jails and the prisons of our city and our state. Most of them failed to achieve much in the way of satisfaction or happiness in life.
But my spirit of determination carried me through these difficult periods of my early career. I suppose that one might say, "Well, how do you gain that sense of confidence that you can do something that people say you can't?" Well, one of the ways in which I have always been able to do it is to look at a particular experience. I can remember sitting in a classroom and with my eyes wide looking at those teachers with awe. And it wasn't until I began to work very hard, study very hard and get a pretty good knowledge of my own that I realized those teachers aren't that superior, they aren't that much better than I. They don't know, in some cases, as much as I. And I think that was a beginning.
So as I went through life, at each step I began to look at those around me and say, "If that person could do it, he or she is not that great, I think I can as well."
That was true whether it was in school or whether it was law school. I remember how tough it was working an eight hour day job and then going to night law school. And as the semesters would roll on, you'd wonder, "How can I make it through law school and then through the bar.
I remember watching members of our city council. If you ever want disillusionment, get close to someone who served in those capacities, and that's what I did. I'd say, "I think I could do that job as well or better than . . . " and I could name half a dozen others easily, and if I looked carefully, I could probably include all of them. So I ran in a district which was about one-third black, did what they said could not be done, and won against an incumbent by a two-to-one margin. I served there for six years, and I began looking around to see what was next. All of these jobs were going to be tough, whether it was running for the board of supervisors of the state legislature or the congress. I decided that if I were going to risk my time and effort and those folks' money, I might as well go after the top job, so I declared for mayor and ran.
But it was a result of looking at the incumbent and realizing that here was another ordinary human being, and that if he could do it, however well or poorly he was doing it, I could as well. And so I'd made that step.
I must tell you, in 1982 I decided to run for governor of California. There were those who said, "No, it can't be done, don't waste your time and our money." They were suggesting that the attitude, the racial attitude in the state of California was such that a black man couldn't possibly be elected governor. Well, I looked at some of the governors who'd served, and once again, I said . . . And I guess I wasn't too far wrong, because out of eight million votes that were cast in 1982,1 lost by only about 90,000 votes in the closest election in the history of the state of California. I'll tell you in a moment some of the reasons why I think that result did occur.
So I went to the White House and I looked around; I was impressed. My friends: if you can believe it, if you can conceive it, you can do it. That's the way I've looked at life, and that's one of the things I hope I can get across to this audience today.
Don't let anybody tell you what you can't do. Make up your own mind, believe in yourself, believe in what may be considered the impossible. If you have the spirit, the determination, the will and a willingness to sacrifice for what you want, you can do it.
I remember the 1969 campaign, one of the most racial campaigns ever in the history of California. I had won the primary with 42 percent of the vote, and my opponent, the incumbent mayor, received 26 percent. It looked as though it was going to be easy from that point on, and I did lead in the polls right up until about the last two weeks of the election campaign. But in the course of that campaign, some of the most vicious racial statements ever conceived were thrown at me and the people of that city. And finally in the closing weeks, people just buckled under. It was too much, and they did become fearful that all of the police department would quit, that the black militants would take over city hall, the most outrageous statements that one can imagine. But they did have an impact, and the lead which I'd enjoyed up to that moment finally began to deteriorate, and I lost that election by a slim margin.
I determined the night of that election that never again would that happen to me, and the following morning, I was up and out campaigning. I went to every neighborhood, every section of that city. I wanted people to know me for who I was, what I was, what I stood for, not to listen to some campaign rhetoric that was not based upon fact and then be guided by that. I wanted them to make their judgment on Tom Bradley, the man, what I stood for, the content of my character rather than the color of my skin.
After four years of that kind of campaigning, it did pay off. And there were many of my young supporters who came to me in 1969 after the election was over and said, "Mr. Bradley, how can you now tell us to work within the system? How can you tell us to believe in fairness and justice in this country after what happened to you?"
Well, I've never let any of these experiences embitter me or disillusion me to the point where I was not able to pick myself up and take off again. And so I had to convince them to hang in there, and I believed that the best way to do that was to demonstrate by my own example that spirit of "stick-to-it-iveness."
In 1973, the same kind of rhetoric was used by the same opponent. This time it didn't work because the people had come to know me, and I won that election handily, and I'm proud to say that in the two elections since then I've been overwhelmingly elected and reelected by the people in my city, from every section of the city. I now enjoy their respect and support.
We have a non-partisan system, so political parties don't really mean anything in city elections. I am supported by Republicans and Democrats, the business community and labor leaders, supported by the homeowner groups in every neighborhood in every region of that city. I've won every district.
This is what I am trying to use as an example of what can happen if you believe in yourself, if you're willing to work for what you want. Now, in the governor's race, almost a parallel thing happened in some respects not the racial campaign that I experienced in the city election, but some of the same charges of various kinds, not based upon fact, were used in that campaign, and yet almost four million voters supported me in California. You know, in Los Angeles, the black population is 17 percent, and that was considered quite an achievement, that people were colorblind in their decision to elect their mayor. I had hoped that we could do the same thing in California. For the most part, we accomplished that. Some who have evaluated that election have identified three reasons why I failed to win in the end.
One of them was a gun control measure which was on the ballot not my proposal, but one which I supported and that brought out a lot more people who had no intention for voting otherwise, who since they were going to vote against the gun control legislation decided they'd vote against the man who said he was in favor of it, and that was me.
The Republican party did what I think was the most effective absentee ballot drive we had ever seen. It was quite legal but never before had been done. They mailed two million absentee ballots, and they collected all of them. They had them returned to them.
If you will look at the figures, you will see that among those who went to the ballot box on election day, I got the majority of the votes, but my opponent got the majority of the absentee ballots. That made a difference.
There were some who said they would never vote for a black man, and they estimate that about 70 percent of the voters had expressed a similar attitude.
Now you can see that any one of these things alone would not have made the difference, but when you combined all three of them, they did make the difference, and tilted the scales by the 90,000 votes that made the difference in the end.
Now, some have asked, "Have you given up? Haven't you had enough?" and the answer is, "No." I have adopted the slogan of Winston Churchill that he used to the British colleagues during World War II. In essence, what he said to them is never, never, never, never give in. I'm not finished yet. And if young people in particular will adopt that attitude that they will never surrender, that they will never quit, nobody can stop them. So you'll be hearing from me. I'm not ready to retire. You'll hear from me again.
Now, that's enough of personal references. I do want to touch just briefly upon some things, because I think that if we look at the last 20 years in this country, we have seen tremendous progress having been made, and I'm very proud of it. It didn't come easily. It took a lifetime of struggle, took the lives of many people, it took commitment on the part of literally millions, but that commitment, that effort has made the difference.
Let me cite three things. One of them is the Voting Rights Act. At the time of the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, there were about 500 blacks who held public office in this nation in the entire country. Today there are over 5,500 who hold offices of every kind. This is a clear indication of the shift, the change in attitude, that has taken place: first, the right of all people to register and vote, and secondly, the willingness of the people to look beyond color or sexual orientation, or look beyond the question of economic circumstances of their prospective leaders, and to choose them based upon their ability, what they stand for rather than where they came from or the color of their skin. And I'm very proud of that development, that progress which has been made by this nation.
I look at one other change that has occurred, the right to public accommodations. I've been through Kansas before. I was here in 1953. I had driven a car from Lansing, Michigan. I was on my way home. I had to stop for a convention in Topeka. I drove all the way from Lansing to Topeka before I was able to rest my head, couldn't get a motel or hotel or an inn that would accept me. I couldn't find a restaurant that would serve me. That has been changed, and for the better for this nation and all of us.
I can remember in World War II when we couldn't, a black couldn't, get a job driving a bus in our city. Today they're got blacks as part of the astronaut team flying to the moon. Today opportunities for jobs have been opened, and the hope for additional expansion is all around you, for blacks, for other minorities, for everyone in this country. That is the sense of progress, that's the progress which we have made in this country in terms of equality and opportunity. I hope that every one of you is as proud of this development, these changes, as I am.
I'm not standing here suggesting to you that it's perfect, that we've done everything that we ought to do, that we've come as far we as are going to go because I don't believe that. But we've come a long way in my lifetime. We've come a long way in the last 20 years. And if we measure history based upon that period of time, then I think you get some degree of hope for the future. You can really believe that it's possible for you, and that's what I encourage young people to do, as I try to serve as a role model for them. Believe in yourself! Take a look at history, not at the last year, and if you can't agree with me that we've made much progress with more to come, then I don't understand the whole sweep of history.
We are a nation which has truly been transformed in the last 20 years. But we're a nation which is, in my judgment, on the verge of the ultimate breakthrough total, unqualified, unconditional equality of opportunity for all people in this nation. We talked about our Constitution, what it promises, what rights we ought to be able to enjoy as human beings, what an impression we make in the rest of the world based solely upon what we do to live out the hopes and dreams contained in our Constitution.
These things that I've referred to already are the accumulation of individual efforts. It wasn't some mandate, some directive that came from on high. It happened because each individual decided himself or herself what he or she was going to do to help change our society. And the accumulation of all of these many millions coming together creates the powerful force that has mandated, that has brought about these changes to which I've referred.
Every student, every young person, must believe in himself or herself, set their goals high, and believe that there are no impossible dreams for possibility thinkers. It is my hope that the life of Tom Bradley, and I just happen to use that one because I know him a little bit better than the rest, can be a source of inspiration, of encouragement, of hope for the future for each of you and for this nation.
Thank you very much.