Wilson Riles, First Black Elected to State Office, Dies


Wilson Riles, a charismatic and imposing educator who in 1970 became the first black official elected to statewide office in California when he began a 12-year tenure as state superintendent of public instruction, died Thursday in Sacramento.

He was 81 and had suffered a series of strokes and heart attacks over the last two months, finally succumbing to a respiratory infection at Sacramento’s Mercy General Hospital.

Born in a backwoods Louisiana town that didn’t have a high school, Riles transformed the job of state schools chief into a powerful office and is widely considered the first superintendent to wield real clout in Sacramento.


He gained national prominence after his stunning defeat of Max Rafferty, a white, right-wing ideologue who had spent much of his eight years in office preaching a return to basics and denouncing progressive approaches to schooling. The election of Riles, who championed the expansion of opportunities for the poor and disadvantaged, signaled a major shift in education philosophy in the state with the nation’s largest school population.

“It was quite a symbolic race . . . one of the most important races in the state in that era. He offered such a stark contrast to Rafferty,” said Michael Kirst, a Stanford University education professor who was on the State Board of Education during the Riles years.

Riles amassed a string of impressive legislative victories early in his tenure, creating programs that continue to shape California public education today, including a master plan for special education that enhanced opportunities for students with disabilities and a grant program that empowers parents to participate in decisions over curriculum and other basic local school issues.

“He was a real giant,” said Davis Campbell, executive director of the California School Boards Assn., who was one of Riles’ deputies. “He didn’t have a political agenda. He had an agenda for children. He was so focused on what is good for kids.”

Although Riles did not trumpet his race, his victory stirred great pride among African Americans, and he was one of the state’s most popular political figures for many years.

An Educator and Politician

He was remembered Friday not only as an educator who put children first, but as a consummate politician with enormous drive that stemmed from early hardships, and as an orphan who worked his way through school.

“My family didn’t want me to get hurt,” he once said of his first run for the superintendency. “But I told them, ‘Listen, I was born in rural Louisiana. I know every problem you can imagine. Talk about working your way through college--I worked my way through elementary school. The worst things that can happen to me have already happened.’ ”

He was born June 27, 1917, in Alexandria, La. His mother, Susie Anna, died when he was 9 and his father, Wilson Rae Riles, a crew chief in a turpentine camp, died two years later. Adopted by friends of his parents, he attended Elizabeth Colored Elementary School. When it was time for Wilson to go to high school, the black community of Elizabeth raised $40 to buy a suit and a bus ticket to New Orleans, where he attended a black high school and helped support himself with a $2.50-a-week job delivering milk.

In an interview with The Times last year, Riles remembered that teachers there believed in him and instilled a love of learning. And it was that lesson, he said, that inspired him to be an educator.

After high school, he moved with his foster family to Flagstaff, Ariz. He enrolled at Arizona State Teachers College, now Northern Arizona University, where he was the only black student. He told Marion Joseph, now a State Board of Education member who was one of Riles’ top Education Department aides, that one of the courses he took there was in Shakespeare, which helped him to shake his rural Louisiana accent.

Painfully aware of race, he once recalled how he would make a point of getting to his classes early so that anyone who sat next to him did so by choice. “Up to then, I didn’t think white people had any problems whatsoever,” he recalled wryly in a 1981 Sacramento Bee interview. “I thought they spent all their time hating me. When I got acquainted with some of them, I found they were more concerned with their own problems than with me.”

He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, then returned to the Flagstaff college to obtain a master’s degree in school administration in 1947.

His first teaching job was in a one-room black school on an Apache reservation in Pistol Creek, Ariz. Then he became the principal of a three-teacher school in nearby McNary, Ariz. There, he met his wife, Mary Louise Phillips, who was one of the teachers.

While working in Arizona schools he did volunteer work for the American Friends Service Committee and would say later that the experience with the Quakers was a great influence on him. In 1954, he moved to Los Angeles to become executive secretary of the Pacific Coast region of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an old-line religious peace organization. During that time he began to serve as a consultant to the state Department of Education on equal opportunity hiring, becoming its first black professional employee. In 1958, he became the chief of the department’s Bureau of Intergroup Relations, enforcing fair employment practices.

In 1965, Riles was made head of a $100-million federally subsidized compensatory education program to improve opportunities for disadvantaged students. Four years later, Rafferty promoted him to deputy superintendent in charge of special education.

“What he really succeeded in doing,” Riles told an interviewer for Ebony magazine in 1971, “was to take me away from the program and put me in a window-dressing position.”

But Riles was building a power base in the Democrat-dominated Legislature, which Rafferty never had. “When Wilson became the director of compensatory education, he had tons of power because the Legislature believed in him,” said Joseph, the former Riles aide.

Rafferty was a fierce conservative who believed in local control of schools, minimal state funding and a return to the three Rs. He vigorously denounced sex education, teachers strikes, campus protests and student drug abuse.

Riles came to believe that Rafferty’s approach was simplistic and divisive and was troubled by the way Rafferty had politicized what was supposed to be a nonpartisan office. The Legislature had begun to strip the Education Department of some of its responsibilities, such as the community colleges.

In early 1970, when it became apparent that there was no viable candidate to take Rafferty on, Riles was urged to run against him. At the time, he thought, “this is impossible. No black man would ever be elected.” But he built a strong coalition of liberals and conservatives; supporters included the iconoclastic San Francisco State President S.I. Hayakawa. In the June 1970 primary, Riles came in second, after Rafferty. In the November runoff, he won by a 54% margin.

A Democrat whose greatest success came during Ronald Reagan’s term as governor--not during fellow Democrat Jerry Brown’s years--Riles took great pride in keeping the office of schools chief nonpartisan. After Bill Honig’s defeat of Riles in 1982, the office became highly politicized, a change that many experts say has cut the authority of the position at a time when public interest in education is at an all-time high.

“His vision for education was extraordinarily ambitious,” said Gary Hart, who served in the Legislature during the Riles administration and now is Gov. Gray Davis’ education advisor. “Although you could incur his wrath and displeasure, I never saw him engaged in petty or vindictive partisan politics.”

Among Riles’ first accomplishments as schools chief was a program to expand on federal efforts to strengthen early education. Called the Early Childhood Education plan, it strived to ensure mastery of reading, writing and math with stronger instruction, teacher training and greater parental involvement. By the end of his third term, the program enrolled almost 800,000 students or about two-thirds of the state’s children in kindergarten through third grade.

Although it was debatable whether the program improved achievement, experts say Riles’ vision resonates today in stepped-up state efforts to bolster reading mastery by the end of third grade.

Riles also launched the School Improvement Program, which created local school committees dominated by parents and awarded the committees grants to hire aides or add programs, such as music lessons. It represented the state’s first big step toward decentralization, which is a mainstay of reform efforts today.

But in the early 1970s parent participation in curriculum and other classroom matters was considered a radical idea, particularly by teachers. “Many teachers said, ‘Well, well, well, no parent will ever cross my threshold. [That level of parent participation] never existed before,” Joseph said.

Prop. 13’s Impact

Toward the end of Riles’ tenure, public schools were thrown into a financial crisis when Proposition 13 was adopted by voters in 1978. That historic act slashed property taxes, which effectively eliminated a local source of revenue for schools and stripped parents and school boards of financial control of their schools, putting the power into the hands of the Legislature.

The initiative spelled the end of many of California’s proudest educational achievements, such as music programs and summer school. The years immediately following its passage were “staggeringly unpretty times,” said John Mockler, a veteran school lobbyist in Sacramento who had been a Riles aide. “His last term was spent propping up crumbling timbers.”

But Riles was instrumental in drafting a remedy that helped prevent poorer districts from falling further behind. When districts needed state bailouts, “Riles said let’s use this Proposition 13 as an opportunity to provide more equity by leveling some districts up,” Kirst recalled.

By the end of Riles’ years in office, however, California had slipped badly in public funding of education. In the mid-1960s, it ranked sixth in the nation in per-pupil spending. By the end of the 1970s, it had fallen to 24th place.

In his later years, Riles came to realize that schools alone could not fix all of the problems children face. He said other social agencies, businesses and communities must be part of the solution. After leaving office, he opened a consulting firm in Sacramento, which conducts searches for superintendents and other school administrators.

Riles is survived by his wife, sons Michael and Phillip of Sacramento and Wilson Jr. of Oakland, daughter Narvia Bostick of Mechanicsburg, Pa., eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Services will be held April 10 at 11 a.m. at the First United Methodist Church in downtown Sacramento. The Riles family has established a scholarship fund in his name to benefit fifth-year teacher candidates. Contributions may be sent to the Wilson Riles Education Foundation at 400 Capitol Mall, Suite 1540, Sacramento, CA 95814.


Times education writer Richard Colvin contributed to this story.