South LA’s Southern California Library keeps social justice history alive


A wall of the library’s exterior features an Olmec statue. | Stephanie Case

It’s been fifty years since Emil Freed—son of anarchists, a Communist Party member, and staunch activist—founded the Southern California Library to save materials at risk of being destroyed amid fear of McCarthyism. A lot has changed in South L.A. since then: the 1992 riots rocked the city, workers’ unions grew stronger, and race, class and sexuality have been at the forefront of political battles. And today, more people than ever are using the social justice library.

“Maybe less than 200 people would come through the door in a year” in 2002, said communications director Michele Welsing. “Now, we’ve seen those numbers go up to as much as 10,000. And for researchers, we’re getting as many people now in one month as we would get in an entire year.”

Take an audio tour of the library with reporter Stephanie Case:

Freed’s small collection of leftist papers has blossomed into more than 400 archives, including vinyl records, film reels and shelves upon shelves of political pamphlets.

When Yusef Omowale took over as library director in 2004, the space catered to academics. Over the past decade, it has grown into a community meeting place. The library hosts hundreds of neighborhood events each year—sometimes, several at once. Union meetings, poetry jams, art exhibits, listening sessions and anarchist puppet shows often make the library their temporary home.

Welsing says she feels proud to have witnessed so many people—especially students—come through the library’s doors. Many come out with a deeper knowledge of South L.A.’s history of oppression and protest.

“If you don’t know that history, then people can tell you anything. Some people say, ‘Oh, South L.A.—they’re criminals. They don’t care about the community. They’re apathetic.’ But if you know the history of South L.A., you know that there used to be good jobs here. But jobs got cut, and cheap drugs came into the community… There’s a reason why [people here] are facing hardscrabble lives.”

View a sampling of the library’s archives:


The library is located at 6120 S. Vermont Ave:

Like Intersections on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and sign up for the Newsletter to stay in the loop on news and views from South L.A.

Speak Your Mind