The African American actor, writer, and director Spencer Williams, Jr. (1895–1969) has been the subject of a range of academic studies in recent years. Scholars have explored his pioneering work in early black film and his problematic role as “Andy Hogg Brown” in the television version of the Amos 'n' Andy radio program as a means of interpreting representations of black life within the confines of the Hollywood culture industry. This new scholarship, however, has reflected a limited and often inaccurate understanding of Williams' remarkable career. As will be discussed in this article, major events in Williams' life that have been unknown until now strongly influenced his filmmaking and his strategies to make the movie and television industries more racially inclusive. Most significantly, Williams was at different times a soldier in a segregated army unit, a convicted felon, and a committed artist and activist in Hollywood. These experiences helped to shape the themes and subject matter of his films, which ranged from religious dramas and singing cowboy westerns to backstage musicals and the first African American horror movie ever made.
In late 1945, a group of outraged citizens in the small city of El Cerrito formed a “Good Government League” to challenge the gambling and liquor interests who controlled City Hall. In the next few years the League achieved all of its agenda: a city manager plan, civil service reform, and the end of wide-open gambling. A movement like this was fairly typical of the Progressive Era. But the city in question was not a turn-of-the-century metropolis like New York or Chicago. These events happened in the late 1940s in a small bedroom community located just to the north of Berkeley. Within a few years, El Cerrito transformed its reputation from “Little Reno” to the squeaky-clean “City of Homes.” As a case study, the El Cerrito story is interesting for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it highlights how development in the San Francisco Bay Area has involved a regional periodization that differs from what we might traditionally associate with suburban growth. The city's Old West heritage was a major source of political conflict, while the activism of the city's new middle class contrasts with what sociologists called the politically quiescent “Organization Men” of the era's “Lonely Crowd.” The El Cerrito experience also lends insight into why the Bay Area has remained politically liberal since 1945. The city's reformers embraced much of the language and platform of the turn-of-the-century progressives. But they also lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War, and desired most of all to make public policy that would ensure economic security and equal opportunity. Their emphasis on an active public sector left a legacy that can still be felt today.