Congresswoman Diane E. Watson: A Woman of Greatness and Conviction Passes the Baton

Today marks the eighteenth anniversary of one of the most deadly displays of civil unrest in American history. Los Angeles imploded when reacting to the jury verdicts in the case of the four LAPD officers charged with the senseless beating of Rodney King. Recently deceased LAPD Chief Daryl Gates found himself reduced to being out of step with increasingly important communities as well as Los Angeles' political leadership. While the likes of Gates were out of step, other leaders were stepping forward for the good of the nation's second largest city. One such important leader was Diane E. Watson -- and the social environment that gave birth to her leadership is important to recall.

In the early 1970s, the Vietnam War was raging; the fight for civil rights was still being waged; and equal rights for women had emerged as a major national issue.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was gone, taken from us in his prime by an assassin's bullet. We were of college age, living in Los Angeles. We were completing our pursuit of a higher education and laying the groundwork for our future goals. We sought role models and were fortunate not to have to look too far to find one.

The '70s was a time when African American women in public office were few and far between. In that era, one woman emerged on the public stage. She stood out among the few as a leader of conviction and determination.

Diane E. Watson became famous for her willingness to stand steadfast in the face of fierce opposition to the implementation of policies to ensure equal education in Los Angeles schools, particularly for African American children who had long been denied access to a quality education.

Diane Watson commanded attention whenever she spoke as the first African American woman elected to the Los Angeles Board of Education in 1975. School Board member Watson understood how to use the media in those turbulent times during the fight over busing to combat segregation in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Diane Watson became our hero. She never backed down. She never retreated. She spoke with clarity and strength. She rallied supporters to her cause. To us, she was fearless. For us, she was a leader and we wanted to be like her.

Diane Watson had attended South LA schools in the '30s and '40s. She knew firsthand the disparities that existed in LA's school system. She knew that the steps she was taking to level the education playing field in Los Angeles were right and just. She never wavered in her support for school busing because she knew busing was the means to an end: children gaining a quality education.

In the '60s, we had attended those same South LA schools. So, we cheered Diane Watson's every move. It may be tough for LA schools to make the local news these days, but in the mid-70s, Diane Watson managed to keep education among the top stories locally, statewide and nationally.

Diane Watson didn't simply want children transported by bus to good schools. She wanted better schools across the sprawling LA Unified School District. She fought for tough academic standards and challenged parents to prepare their children for stricter studies.

By the time Diane Watson left the LA School Board for the California State Senate in 1978, she had thoroughly inspired a new generation of future leaders. Many of those new leaders were women. We count ourselves among those active members of our community who consider Diane Watson our hero.

Diane Watson went from serving in the California Legislature to serving the Clinton Administration as Ambassador to Micronesia. In 2001, she succeeded the late Julian Dixon as a member of U.S. House of Representatives, representing the 33rd Congressional District where she has lived her entire life.

Congresswoman Diane Watson will retire at the end of her current term in office. She will be deservedly feted between now and then. As a matter of fact, the praise has already begun--from the California Democratic Party Convention to the Los Angeles African American Women's Public Policy Institute. Indeed, the Congresswoman has made history because she has voluntarily passed the baton of public service, as she has done on previous occasions throughout her political career. Because of her work and her confident support of our work, we are ready to take the handoff.

Diane Watson showed us the path. She challenged us to walk that path. She has been a living template for activist public policies and programs that affects lives and gets the job done--for children to senior citizens--in education, health care, or social services. We are Diane Watson's leadership legacy. We proudly follow in her footsteps for the people we represent and for those people we seek to represent.

Mark Ridley-Thomas is a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Karen Bass is the immediate past Speaker of the California State Assembly.