Monday, May 4, 2015

Was Terry Francois Ahead of His Time?

Terry Francois
If you lived in San Francisco in the 1960s or 1970s, you’d have heard of Terry Francois. Indeed, unlike most of the other people who appear in Forging Rivals, Francois has a street named after him. (I’ll leave it to you to decide how flattering this is. Terry A. Francois Boulevard runs for a mile along the coast of the Bay, starting just south of AT&T Park and McCovey Cove. Presumably, San Francisco’s city fathers hope this neighborhood will soon develop into yet another tech-centered fountain of riches, but for now this vision is still aspirational.) Francois was classic Talented Tenth. Born in New Orleans, he received a BA (from Xavier University) and an MBA (from Atlanta University) before joining the Marines in World War II. After the War he moved to San Francisco, got a law degree from UC Hastings and began a successful career as a civil rights attorney in the city. He became the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, served on the boards of the San Francisco Urban League and the Council for Civic Unity, and was one of the inaugural commissioners of San Francisco Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity. In 1964, he became the first African American to serve on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, a position he held until 1978. He was involved in most every civil rights-oriented event that occurred in San Francisco in the three decades that followed the War.

Yet Francois’ relationship with other African American civil rights advocates was rocky at best. Younger, more nationalist activists found him (along with many black leaders of his generation) to be hopelessly sedate. (“A cocksucker who’s forgot he’s black,” according to one.) But even many of his peers, San Francisco’s postwar, African American bourgeoisie, disliked him, and sought to marginalize him. He was seen as too power-hungry, too close to downtown business interests, and insufficiently tied to the black community. His support for urban renewal projects in the predominantly black Western Addition neighborhood was the last straw. In the late 1970s, when San Francisco began to elect its Supervisors from local districts rather than at large, Francois was quickly ousted from office, unable to garner sufficient support in the black community.

Francois is not exactly lost to history, but his life is certainly underexplored. He is representative of a certain element of the postwar African American elite who tried to blend a deep commitment to racial egalitarianism with more conservative political and economic instincts. In 1960s and 1970s San Francisco, this was not a recipe for political success. Indeed, San Francisco’s most successful African American power broker of Francois’ generation – Carlton Goodlett, the editor and publisher of San Francisco’s African American newspaper, the Sun-Reporter – traced a much more savvy political path on the leftmost edge of California’s Democratic Party. (Goodlett got a street named after him too. It’s quite short -- maybe two hundred yards -- but it is directly in front of San Francisco’s City Hall.) A generation later, however, the story would be different. Francois had one very successful protégé: Willie Brown, for thirty years one of the most powerful politicians in the state. Brown was exceptionally successful at combining business-friendly economic policies with liberal social policies in a manner that attracted support both within the black community and among powerful white elites. It may be that Francois’ political instincts were better suited for the 1980s than the 1960s.