LOS ANGELES – He was the self-proclaimed “Emperor of the Great 9th,” a flamboyant, gravel-voiced public servant who rose from picking cotton in a dusty Mississippi plantation to igniting a revolution of power, enterprise and industry throughout black Los Angeles.
By the end of his long life, he’d become one of the city’s most influential, dynamic and beloved politicians — bar none.
Longtime activist Gilbert William Lindsay, a transplant from rural Jasper County in the Deep South, migrated to Los Angeles in the mid-1920s with the hopes and dreams of a better life — and not much else.
He quickly got busy chasing his dream.
When Lindsay arrived in L.A., the city was experiencing a great expansion in population, public services and development. Racial discrimination, however, relegated most jobs for black men to service industries — despite what their actual intellect or talents might be. As a result, Lindsay’s first job in L.A. was as a janitor at the county’s Department of Water and Power (DWP).
Despite this humble position, Lindsay became one of many black DWP workers who leveraged their job for personal and career growth. Some of them — like Lindsay and L.G. Robinson, head of the custodial workforce — also accumulated some wealth by acquiring property, if not political equality.
But Lindsay wanted more. After passing the civil service exam, he became a clerk at DWP, where he was forced to work alone in a basement office so he would not sit alongside white workers.
Undeterred, however, Lindsay continued his education, taking classes in public administration and political science at USC and in business administration at UCLA, building on the education he’d received while serving in the U.S. Army’s 10th Calvary and 25th Infantry units.
By the 1930s, Lindsay was launching his foray into Democratic politics. He helped turn out the vote on bond issues and helped black Democrat Augustus “Gus” Freeman Hawkins defeat Republican Frederick Madison Roberts (the city’s first black elected official) in 1934 to become a State Assembly member for the 62nd District — a district that included white voters who supported organized labor in the multiethnic Central Avenue corridor.
Lindsay and Hawkins were both in the early stages of their political careers, joining the liberal coalition that pursued state power to overhaul California’s oft-discriminatory social and economic systems. Over the next 20 years, Lindsay became the power broker to see if you wanted to get the black vote.
In 1947, City Council candidate Kenneth Hahn called on Lindsay to help with the campaign and, with Lindsay’s help, won that race. In 1952, with Lindsay as his associate campaign manager, Hahn won a seat on the County Board of Supervisors. Lindsay’s wife, Theresa, also supported Hahn’s cause through her role as founder of the Women’s Sunday Morning Breakfast Club, a powerful black civic group in L.A.
Lindsay subsequently made national news and black political history when he was named one of Hahn’s top deputies — a position he held for 10 years until he was appointed councilman of the 9th district at age 62, filling the remaining term of City Councilman Ed Roybal, a Mexican American who’d just been elected to the U.S. Congress.
Meanwhile, Lindsay’s 1963 appointment — coming during a time of heightened protest and social change in the nation — was part of a wave of black political change sweeping over Los Angeles. The same year, retired police officer and lawyer Tom Bradley won the seat in the 10th, and attorney Billy Mills won in the 8th, giving black leaders three of the 15 council district seats.
Also the changes made by the 1962 political redistricting created an additional state Assembly seat for Los Angeles, fueling the election of African Americans Rev. F. Douglas Ferrell (Republican) and Mervyn Dymally (Democrat) to the state Legislature and Gus Hawkins to a U.S. House seat.
Over the next 30 years, Lindsay would become an even bigger political giant among his peers and in the community he continued to serve. During his tenure in office, he helped:
• Invigorate South Central with the Vermont/Slauson Shopping Center and the creation of low-interest loans to homeowners for rebuilding projects.
• Revitalize Little Tokyo and Chinatown.
• Expand senior housing through several projects, including the Stovall Foundation, Phillips Temple Community Housing, and the Angelus Plaza complex, then the nation’s largest public subsidized senior housing facility.
• Create the Lindsay Recreational Center and several child-care centers.
• Expand office, commercial and service industry space that — together with the city’s convention center and new hotel space — put the downtown district on track to become one of the nation’s most vital business and tourist centers
African American political victories in the 1962 and 1963 elections changed the face of local politics for decades to come. During pivotal years for civil rights around the nation, Los Angeles finally caught up to other big cities that already had elected African Americans to varied public offices – in some cases, a decade or so before.
In the aftermath of the council election and the following civil unrest in Watts in 1965, a movement to solidify black political representation citywide occurred. This would lead to the historic election of Tom Bradley as the city’s first black mayor in 1973 (a position he held until 1993) and to African Americans gaining increasing numbers of significant political posts in L.A. and the state.
Lindsay, in conjunction with other African American activists, leaders and elected officials, brought previously denied progress to L.A.’s black community in education, labor, employment reforms, infrastructure, safety and basic city services.
At 5 foot 3 inches, he stood as tall as any black political pioneer in Los Angeles history.
Historian Alison Rose Jefferson was a contributing writer for the WAVE’S 2019 Black History Month series. Her book titled “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era” (University of Nebraska Press) will be available for pre-order in April.