Called by one author a "radical precursor to the black power movement," Charlotta
Bass was a pioneering civil rights leader. A committed advocate for civil rights and
civil liberties, Bass involved herself in struggles ranging from police
brutality to housing and job discrimination. An early feminist and multiracial coalition
builder, Bass championed the rights of women and other oppressed groups including immigrants
and Mexican Americans. She did so on an international and national level, but she focused
most of her energy on pursuing civil rights for the residents of Los Angeles.
|Charlotta Bass speaking at a meeting in 1949.
Bass participated in, founded, and led a number of prominent activist organizations including,
among others, the Los Angeles branches of the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People (NAACP), the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the Civil
Rights Congress, and the National Negro Congress. She was also a founder of the
Sojourners for Truth and Justice, a national organization of prominent African American
women that in 1951 petitioned the President, Congress, the State Department, and the
Justice Department of the United States to redress civil rights abuses against African
Using these organizations and the California Eagle as springboards, Bass helped
lead the fight in a number of important civil rights struggles. (See also a
timeline of Bass's major civil rights activities.)
Job Discrimination. Bass was tireless in her fight to end
discrimination in the workplace and increase economic opportunities for Blacks,
beginning with her successful initiative in 1917 to persuade the Los Angeles
County Hospital to hire black women. She went on to spearhead a successful campaign
in the 1930s to integrate employment at the Southern California Telephone Company.
She was instrumental in
starting a Los Angeles-based "Don't Shop Where You Can't Work" campaign. The
Industrial Council, which Bass created and organized in 1930
to combat discrimination and to encourage black business, was also active in
Leading up to and during World War II, Bass helped transform discriminatory
employment practices in the defense industry. Bass and her fellow
activists saw equality for blacks as a necessary condition for success
in the war, given the need for soldiers, industrial workers, and
others whose work supported the war effort. Black newspapers dubbed
this movement the "Double V"--victory at home against inequality
and victory in the war abroad. Bass was active in the Negro Victory
Committee, created to help Blacks get war-related jobs and gain
access to other necessities.
In the 1930s and 40s, Bass became increasingly involved with the labor movement
and supported progressive, integrationist labor unions, like the
Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
Housing Discrimination. Homeowners were allowed to use racial
"restrictive covenants" in property deeds to ban certain groups from purchasing
property and moving into predominantly white neighborhoods. Bass helped to influence
the U.S. Supreme Court's decision against racial restrictive covenants and to open home
ownership and housing to all. The California Eagle and the Los Angeles Sentinel
led the campaign to fight the covenants and support black homeowners. In addition, the
Negro Victory Committee, which Bass was a member of, successfully negotiated
housing for war workers without racial restrictions.
One well-publicized case that Bass was very involved in was the
struggle of the Henry and Anna Laws family to remain in their own
home. In 1942, the family was told that African Americans were barred
from living in the neighborhood and were ordered to move. But the
Laws refused to leave and waited as the issue was argued in various
courts. Eventually, they were sent to jail for disobeying a court
order requiring them to vacate their home. But they were able to
remain in their home after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1948
that racial restrictive covenants were unenforceable. The "Home
Protective Association," under the leadership of the Eagle,
assisted the Laws family throughout this struggle.
Another early case that shows Bass's effectiveness in mobilizing people involved
Mrs. Mary Johnson who purchased a small home on East 18th Street in 1914. The outraged
white neighbors moved her furniture to the lawn and boarded up her windows and doors
while she was out. Mrs. Johnson appealed to Bass who rounded up 100 church women to go to
the home in protest until finally the police came and opened up the home. Mrs. Johnson was
able to stay in her home.
Media Stereotyping. Bass challenged the Hollywood
film studios to be more responsible in their depiction of African
Americans, beginning with protest over D.W. Griffith's 1915 film
Birth of a Nation, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan. One
of the California Eagle's early battles was to try to halt
production of the film, which depicted Blacks in a very racist way.
We of the Eagle pioneered in an important field of
social struggle, Bass later wrote; the struggle to make
the film industry responsible morally for the content of its products.
Ku Klux Klan. Bass reported on Ku Klux Klan activities for many decades
and repeatedly confronted Klan leadership in Los Angeles. In 1925, she and her husband were sued by the Klan
for libel, when the paper printed a secret letter from the Klan outlining a strategy to
manipulate the black vote. The Basses won the case, establishing their credentials as
fierce opponents of the Klan.
Police Brutality/Criminal Justice System. Bass demanded fair
treatment in the criminal justice system and fought against police brutality.
During the "zoot suit" riots in 1943, the Eagle published a plan that called
for an end to police brutality and race discrimination and for the employment and promotion of
Spanish-speaking and Negro officers. The Eagle was able to demonstrate that
police brutality agains Blacks and Mexican Americans was the same. After the war, the
Eagle worked with the Civil Rights Congress to publicize the issue of
Bass fought against racial prejudice in the criminal justice system
as a member of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, a diverse group
of community leaders in Los Angeles who joined forces to fight for
the release of twelve Mexican-American young men who were accused
of the murder of Jose Diaz. She used the California Eagle
in January 1944 to harshly criticize the Sheriff's Department who
urged the Grand Jury to consider the "biological basis" for the
criminal behavior of Mexican youth and their "desire to kill." Bass likened
this thinking to Hitler's race theories.
Civil Liberties. The California Legislature's Joint Fact-Finding Committee
on un-American Activities (informally known as the
Tenney Committee) came to Los Angeles in the early forties and spent
the rest of the decade investigating local Los Angeles progressive
groups. Bass was one of those targeted. Her outspokenness had earned
her critics, including those in government. Accused of being a member
of the Communist Party, Bass was called to testify before the Tenney
Committee. She denied such membership, but worked with Communists
and defended their civil liberties, as well as her own right to
speak out against injustices. She paid a steep price for her willingness
to fight for what she believed in. The FBI had her under continuous
surveillance until her death, and the charges of Communism damaged
her effectiveness in the community and the financial stability of
her newspaper, the California Eagle. It is likely that
one of the reasons Bass is relatively unknown today--despite her
extraordinary achievements--is because of the fear-mongering of
the McCarthy era and its lingering effects.
As a prominent and respected leader, Bass was unwavering in her pursuit of fairness.
Wherever and whenever she saw injustice, she felt a duty to address it. As
she herself said, "In public, in private, wherever I have heard the challenge, the call for
a greater effort, the need for further struggle....I have continued to this day
to work and fight and struggle toward the light of a better day."