The road to Bruce’s Beach
How her father’s experience with Martin Luther King Jr. informed Janice Hahn’s leadership at a historic moment
by Mark McDermott
Janice Hahn was only nine years old, and her father was already her hero. But he was also a hero to thousands of others, particularly in South Central Los Angeles.
Kenneth Hahn was a larger-than-life figure. He had been a poor kid from South Central whose own father had died before he was born. He was the seventh son of Hattie and John Hahn and started working at age 5 to help his family get by. While still a teenager, he served in the Navy during WWII, where he was eventually promoted to commanding officer. After the war, he became the youngest ship pilot in Port of LA history. At 26, Hahn became the youngest-ever LA City Councilman; and then, at 32, he became the youngest to serve on the LA County Board of Supervisors. He would be elected to a record 10 terms and serve 45 years as a supervisor.
There was always, in other words, something extraordinary about Kenny Hahn. And though Janice didn’t quite understand what it meant at the time, a February night in 1961 would remain deeply imprinted in her memory.
Her father came home for dinner and told his family he’d just met a truly great man. His name was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hahn had picked him up at the airport, drove him around L.A. for two hours, including a tour of South Central, and stopped at his office to share a cup of coffee and a heartfelt conversation.
“He shared his hopes and dreams for America with me,” Hahn told his kids. “That one day, his kids and our children could coexist peacefully.”
Two years later, King’s dream would be forever etched into American history when he stood before 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and delivered a speech that still resonates today.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” King said that day. “I have a dream today! I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
“I think my dad always thought he heard the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech first,” Janice Hahn said.
Dr. King, of course, now belongs to history as one of our truly great leaders. But it’s easy to forget that as late as 1961, when he arrived in Los Angeles, King and his vision were widely considered too radical by much of mainstream America. The reason Kenneth Hahn picked King up at the airport that day was that no other elected official in Los Angeles wanted to be seen with Dr. King.
“My dad showed his courage,” Janice Hahn said. “Even though I didn’t feel it at the time. I just thought it was kind of cool my dad did that. But then I began to understand, of course, it was courageous. Which is why nobody else wanted to do it.”
King was coming to preach at a church that night, and the pastor had just called Hahn. He’d already asked the mayor, every member of the City Council, State Assemblymembers, and State Senators. Every one of them claimed to have a scheduling conflict. Hahn answered the call.
“I’d be honored to meet him,” he told the pastor.
Hahn quickly obtained an L.A. County ceremonial scroll, enlisted a County photographer, and drove to the airport. He was standing at the bottom of the stairs when King deboarded the aircraft, welcoming the civil rights leader as the dignitary he was. The photographer captured their warm handshake.
“It was a moment in history,” Janice Hahn said. “It meant so much, but it meant so much more to the Black community than the rest of L.A. County, because he was their hero, and my dad was welcoming him. That became kind of an urban legend in the Black community.”
It also meant a lot to Kenneth Hahn. He understood that to side with Dr. King was to be on the right side of history — that King was leading the way towards a nation that lived up to its highest ideals. Hahn had a small brass plate put on the back of the chair King sat on when they shared coffee in his office. This, he told anyone who would ask, is where a great man sat and shared his dream with me.
Janice Hahn also has a more bittersweet memory regarding Dr. King and her father. It was April 4, 1968. She was 16 years old. Her father received a late-night phone call from a newspaper reporter. She remembers the ashen look on her father’s face when he learned what had happened.
“Your friend, Dr. King, has been assassinated,” the reporter told Hahn.
Hahn was devastated. But he also understood that the dream Dr. King had shared with him would live on, beyond his friend’s life and his own. A few years later, in 1972, he led the charge to name the new County hospital — built for the underserved communities of South Central — after Martin Luther King. He placed a call to Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, to seek permission.
“Mrs. King,” he said. “You don’t know who I am, but if it’s okay with you, I’d like to name a hospital after your husband.”
“Oh no, Mr. Hahn. I know who you are,” Coretta King said. “My Martin, when he came home, couldn’t stop talking about how nice this white official was in Los Angeles.”
“I still choke up,” Janice Hahn said, “every time I think of that story. And I still didn’t truly understand it until years later.”
Kenneth Hahn would serve until 1992 and then pass away five years later, in 1997. The LA Times obituary headline referred to him as the “People’s Politician,” because he tirelessly sought to improve the lives of those he served in both big ways, such as establishing the County’s paramedic program, and funding LA’s mass transit system, and small ways, such as playing an instrumental role in bringing the Dodgers to LA. He was known for his effectiveness in the unglamorous side of governance, such as fixing potholes and tending to constituent needs. He famously carried a shovel in his car trunk, both for potholes and impromptu ground-breaking ceremonies.
“The door to his office was the door to his heart,” the Rev. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray, pastor of the First African Episcopal Church, told the Times. “His office was portable. It was wherever people were hurting. He was healing.”
Even his military service was of the non-glamorous, workaday variety.
“I’d ask him, what did you do in the war, Daddy?” Janice Hahn remembers. “I took the bacon, the bread, and the milk, and I got it to the troops,” he told her. His military service, in the Pacific Theater, was his only time away from L.A. He lived and died within two miles of where he was born.
“He grew up in poverty,” Janice Hahn said. “The first suit he ever owned was when he joined the Navy. He never lost touch with his roots and his poverty, and so he could relate to the people he represented. He was one of them, and I think they knew that.”
Unlike her father, and her brother Jim, who became mayor of Los Angeles, Janice did not enter elected office until later in life. She was a school teacher, and then worked in the private sector, including a stint as public affairs regional manager for Southern California Edison, until 2001, when she was elected to the Los Angeles City Council. She represented the 15th District, which includes all of San Pedro, where she moved in 1992.
In 2011, she was elected to the U.S. Congress. As a Congresswoman, she began thinking more deeply about her father’s experience with Dr. King. This happened because Hahn was invited by Congressman John Lewis, a contemporary of Dr. King’s, on a pilgrimage to civil rights sites in the South.
“That’s when I really began to understand the meaning of what my dad had done,” she said. “We went to Birmingham and Montgomery and then it began to dawn on me, the danger people felt who associated with Dr. King, not just African Americans, but definitely the white politicians. Most didn’t want to have anything to do with him. Those who did step forward had crosses burned on their lawns, and many of them lost their employment. I didn’t understand that as a teenager in Los Angeles. After that pilgrimage with John Lewis, my dad’s courage meant more to me, and of course, that was not until I was in my 60s, when I served in Congress.”
One of John Lewis’s close friends was a woman who’d marched with Dr. King, and sang his favorite hymns during their travails. When she found out who Janice’s father was, she was filled with emotion. “I know who Kenny Hahn was,” she said. “And what he meant to Dr. King.”
When Hahn returned from that trip, and saw the life-sized photo of Dr. King and her father that still adorns the new MLK hospital, she beheld it with different eyes.
“For me, that story got elevated,” Hahn said. “It meant so much more to me through other people’s eyes, perception, and recollection of the event.”
Embarrassment. That was Hahn’s reaction two years ago when she first heard about the history of Bruce’s Beach, the Black-owned resort taken from a family by the City of Manhattan Beach in 1929 because of the color of their skin.
Hahn by this time was serving in the same seat her father served in the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
“I was embarrassed that I, who grew up in Los Angeles County, did not ever learn of Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach,” said Hahn, who learned to swim in the ocean just a few blocks from Bruce’s Beach.
Hahn thought she knew something of the history of race in the United States, particularly after her time with John Lewis.
“I remember coming home from that trip, sort of feeling like, Gosh, that was unbelievable, what happened in the South. We did not experience that in Southern California. I don’t remember drinking fountains that were labeled white and colored. I don’t remember being segregated when I went to school or went to church,” Hahn said. “So somehow, I thought we didn’t have that racist past in Los Angeles. And sure enough, we did. And Bruce’s Beach is one story; there are so many others now coming to light.”
After an activist named Kavon Ward launched a movement called Justice for Bruce’s Beach, and organized protests at the land — which is now occupied by a city park and an LA County Lifeguard training center — Hahn finally learned about Willa and Charles Bruce, and how they and other Black families were compelled to leave their oceanside properties after the City utilized the legal process of eminent domain to wrest the land away from them.
After the Justice for Bruce’s Beach protests in 2020, the City of Manhattan Beach established a task force, which included an advisory board that compiled a comprehensive history of what occurred at Bruce’s Beach. Willa Bruce, in particular, strode out of this history as a pioneering entrepreneur. The daughter of a formerly enslaved woman who’d come west from Missouri in search of freedom, and opportunity in California, Willa Bruce had a vision — to establish a resort where Black families could find respite beside the Pacific Ocean at a time when African Americans were routinely denied the rights of land ownership on the coast. Charles Bruce worked as a chef on a Union Pacific railroad dining car. He and Willa saved the money to buy oceanfront land months before the City of Manhattan Beach was officially incorporated in 1912. When they opened the resort in June of that year, one of the city’s founders, George Peck, roped off the beach and positioned constables to keep Black people from “trespassing” on the beach. Willa Bruce and her patrons were undaunted. They walked the half mile around the ropes to the ocean. Willa knew this was only the beginning of the troubles she would face.
“Whenever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort, we have been refused,” Bruce told the L.A. Times. “But I own this land, and I am going to keep it.”
The Bruces’ resort flourished, becoming a focal point and community wellspring for Black Angelenos. Five more African American families bought property nearby, and Bruce’s Beach began to become a community unto itself. But the City stepped in before that could happen, and took the land, using eminent domain with the purported intention of establishing a park. The land would sit vacant for three decades. One of the city leaders who took part in the action, Frank Daugherty, later admitted the real reason.
“At one time, we thought that the Negro problem was going to stop our progress,” Daugherty wrote in a newspaper 20 years later. “And they erected a large building at the end of 27th Street, using the first floor for a dressing room for bathing and the entire second floor for a dining room and kitchen…They came here in truckloads with banners flying, Bound for Manhattan Beach. We tried to buy them out, but they would not sell….We had to acquire these two blocks to solve the problem, so we voted to condemn them and make a city park there. We had to protect ourselves. Our attorney advised members of the council never to admit the real purpose and establishment of the park, especially during the council meetings.”
As Hahn learned this history, she began doing her own research.
“When I finally saw the parcel map, where the actual resort had been, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s the property that LA County owns, where we now have our lifeguard administration building,” Hahn recalled.
She then had her staff further research the history of the land. The City of Manhattan Beach, it turned out, had given the two parcels of land where Bruce’s resort had existed to the state in 1948, and then the state gave that land to the county in 1995.
“It really mattered to me,” Hahn said. “I thought, You know what? Los Angeles County could help right a wrong that happened 100 years ago. I was compelled at that moment to do what I thought was the right thing…This was not just an injustice to Charles and Willa Bruce. This was an injustice to generations who most certainly would have been wealthy.”
County legal advisers told Hahn that three options were available. One was to simply return the land to the Bruce family. Another was to transfer ownership of the land back to the Bruces, and then establish a ground lease in which LA County pays rent to the family, and keeps the lifeguard headquarters. The third option was to determine the value of the property and pay the Bruces.
As she considered the options, the first call Hahn made was to one of the four remaining direct descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce, their great-great-grandson Anthony Bruce.
“When I talked to Anthony Bruce, I realized that this is not in the past for the Bruce family,” Hahn said. “They have agonized about this their entire lives. He said there were some years where they could talk about it, some years where they couldn’t talk about it. He told me his own father was so angry at the world about it that he could barely reconcile anything. So it was a deep scar in their family history.”
“I just want justice for my family,” Bruce told the Los Angeles Times at that time. “I’m just looking for hope and mercy.”
In March 2021, Hahn announced she would lead a legislative effort to return the land to the Bruce family. If accomplished, it would represent an unprecedented act of reparations. No land taken from Black Americans had ever been returned. The Board of Supervisors unanimously supported the effort. But Hahn still faced withering opposition, some from people close to her.
“There were some dark moments, where I had friends who told me I had lost my way,” Hahn said. “I had a group of people within my friend circle who really questioned my judgment. Those were times I had to keep drawing on the strengths of my dad, who many times fought some of his battles by himself.”
“He was on the right side of history,” Hahn said. “He just instinctively knew where that was going to be. And my connection with him kept me believing this was the right thing to do….When people ask, ‘Where do you get your political courage?’ I have to say, I got my courage from my Dad.”
When it comes to reparations, the question is often asked — where does it stop? That is, if the Bruces’ land is returned to the family, then perhaps Native Americans and other groups on the losing end of history have even broader claims.
But Hahn reversed the question.
“Where does it start?” she said at the time. “Someone was interviewing me and they said, ‘Are you afraid of starting a precedent?’ And I said, ‘I hope it does.’”
Several challenges existed. Perhaps most dauntingly, a deed restriction was attached that required the land remain for public use. Hahn, though she came to politics later in life, possesses a gift like her father’s for simply knowing a lot of people. Since she had served on the LA City Council, in Congress, and for the last six years as a county supervisor, she knew almost every elected official in the region. She connected the dots.
State Senator Steven Bradford introduced SB 796, which was co-authored by State Senator Ben Allen and Assemblymembers Al Muratsuchi and Autumn Burke. The bill allowed the County to give back the land with no deed restriction. It was an arduous process, but the bill triumphed. Almost miraculously, SB 796 passed unanimously through both the state assembly and senate in early September 2021. Later that month, Governor Gavin Newsom came to Bruce’s Beach to sign the bill into law.
One last hurdle remained. Joseph Ryan, an attorney from Palos Verdes Estates, filed a complaint with the court in November seeking an injunction against the Board of Supervisors. Ryan argued the land transfer does not serve a public purpose and the state law recently enacted to enable it was therefore unconstitutional under California law.
Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff, in a ruling issued last April, rejected Ryan’s argument.
“Righting a government wrong perpetrated in breach of our core and fundamental constitutional principles works to strengthen governmental integrity, represents accountability in government and works to eliminate structural racism and bias,” Beckloff wrote. “The government’s act of rectifying a prior egregious wrong based on racism fosters trust and respect in government.”
Even Hahn was astonished at how it had all played out — the unlikelihood of all the unanimous votes, for example, and then the vociferousness of the judge’s upholding of the action. It was almost as if a story was being written from on high.
“This was something that had never been done before. There was no playbook for it,” she said. “And yet, it just had a blessing over it. Kenny Hahn was up there in heaven, John Lewis was up there, Dr. King…They’re all kind of like watching this happen, and making sure things fall into place.”
At the end of June, the Board of Supervisors moved to transfer the land. Many people played a role in making this happen, including a small army of County lawyers, state legislators, Kavon Ward, and Hahn’s colleague Holly Mitchell, who after redistricting earlier this year now represents the area that includes Bruce’s Beach. But moments before the board voted unanimously to enact the transfer, an emotional Supervisor Sheila Kuehl looked directly at Hahn.
“It’s brought back to me today, particularly, a couple of things that we don’t think about a lot,” she said. “One is to undo racism, to be anti-racist, is not a simple thing. Just to undo this one thing, if you think about it, it took a state law and it took so many people trying to figure it out….So congratulations, really, on your tenacity, Janice. I can’t help but think your dad would be really proud, and happy.”
On July 20, the Bruce family came to what was once again truly Bruce’s Beach for a ceremonial transfer. The County will enter into a two-year lease with the Bruces at $413,000 annual rent, after which, according to terms of the lease agreement, the Bruces can require the County to purchase the land for $20 million. The Bruces could then keep the land to lease, or sell it.
The land now belongs to an LLC formed by the Bruce family, which includes Willa and Charles Bruce’s great-grandsons, Marcus and Derrick, and Derrick’s sons, Anthony and Micheal.
“We can’t change the past and we will never be able to make up for the injustice that was done to your great-great-grandparents, Willa and Charles, nearly a century ago,” Hahn told the family, moments before they received the actual deed. “But this is a start.”
Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech directly touched on the righting of wrongs. He spoke metaphorically of land. “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight,” King said. But in this instance, his hope was made literal. A crooked land deal had been set aright.
A month later, Anthony Bruce was still thinking about the day he met Janice Hahn via Zoom. He was understandably a little skeptical and asked her why she wanted to do this. She told him about her father and Dr. King.
“I did not have to convince her to join the fight to see justice for the Bruce family, and really all families who have been treated poorly because of racial inequality,” Bruce said.
Bruce ended the meeting by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
“It ends with the words, ‘And justice for all,’” Bruce said. “As I concluded Janice Hahn said, ‘Some day.’”
“She says that after hearing the Pledge, I’ve noticed,” Bruce said. “As for our relationship with her, as a person, I love her dearly. And as a family, we are grateful to her. We still keep in contact. I think she looked up to her father, Kenneth Hahn, and loved him. I believe he would be very proud of his exceptional daughter, Janice Hahn.”
Hahn has had a long, and, in some ways, more varied political career than her father. She shares many of his traits, particularly a complete lack of pretension, and a genuine desire to make the world a little better, usually in the small, incremental steps that government can take to improve lives. But occasionally, it’s possible to take a giant leap. The return of Bruce’s Beach is one of those instances.
“By far, it’s the most important thing I have ever been involved in,” Hahn said. “And if I do nothing else with the remaining years I have in politics or in life, this will be why I went into public service. And this will be the thing I’m pretty sure my dad would be the most proud of.” PEN