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Obituaries

Rita Walters, a fierce advocate for equality and trailblazing elected official, dies at 89

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Councilwoman Rita Walters was an early champion of questioning the police use of force against people of color, said her council colleague Zev Yaroslavsky.
(Bob Carey / Los Angeles Times)

During the tumultuous battle over mandatory busing in Los Angeles public schools in the late 1970s and 1980s, Rita Walters served as the only black member of a school board whose majority opposed forced integration. When her pro-busing side won in court, she expressed dismay over an integration plan that excluded the black children of Watts.

“I find it very interesting that the lines around the black community correspond almost to the street to the lines of the curfew area during the Watts uprising,” she said in a 1980 interview, referring to the five days of rioting in 1965. “It becomes another stigma, another burden, that black people are asked to bear.”

Walters, a trailblazing African American leader who advocated fiercely for racial equality on the L.A. school board from 1979 through 1991, and then on the L.A. City Council in the 1990s, died Monday in hospice care in Los Angeles of complications from Alzheimer’s disease and an infection. She was 89.

Walters was largely on the losing side of the city’s bitter integration wars, but she never gave up on her belief that children of different backgrounds would benefit by going to school together. Through decades of public service she extended her commitment to fighting for black workers and other minorities to gain equal access to employment.

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“We have overcome against all of those odds and we’re going to keep on doing it,” she said. “It’s not going to happen today. It’s not going to happen tomorrow. And it probably won’t happen in my lifetime. But the struggle has to be kept up.”

During her time on the school board the district’s limited mandatory busing never fully took effect. A state ballot initiative in 1979 ultimately relieved the district of that obligation.

But Walters recalibrated — embracing a voluntary integration program that resulted in sought-after magnet schools, although she challenged their placement in predominantly whiter and more affluent areas.

“Rita brought all the issues of inequality in the education system right to the fore and her passion was in dealing with those issues,” said Howard Miller, who left the board as Walters was joining it.

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“She was sometimes a difficult person to work with because she had strict beliefs she didn’t bend on, but students in the district never had a better advocate,” said Jackie Goldberg, who served on the school board with her and recently returned to the board.

In 1991, Walters became the first black woman elected to the Los Angeles City Council, winning by just 76 votes. Her council colleague, Zev Yaroslavsky, recalled her as an early champion of questioning the police use of force against people of color and for making sure that the city hired a diverse workforce.

“She was unintimidated by the chief of police and there was a time when that was a refreshing thing,” Yaroslavsky said, adding that Walters forcefully rejected political influence peddling.

“She made a lot of adversaries because of that,” he said, “but her mission was to represent everybody, not just the people who had access to her.”

Former City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who served as a council chief of staff to Walters, recalled watching her corner then-Mayor Richard Riordan in an elevator and tell him she wanted a park built on a Department of Water and Power lot at Slauson and Compton avenues.

“They weren’t necessarily the best of friends so he tried to disregard what she said,” said Perry. “But in the end, she got what she needed for the community.”

“She was always assertive, all the time,” Perry added.

Walters drew citywide attention over her opposition in 1997 to a planned downtown sports arena in her district. Earlier, Walters supported the plan for what is today known as Staples Center, but ultimately cast a vote against it because she worried that the city-subsidized project would plunge Los Angeles into debt.

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Rita Delores White was born in Chicago, the oldest of five children on Aug. 14, 1930. The family moved to Kansas soon after. Her father Henry worked as a Pullman porter. Her mother Verter cleaned houses.

The future leader was determined to get an education, being among the first to integrate a local community college and then going to college in Alabama for a year before the family called her home to work. She caused a stir as the first black salesgirl at a jewelry store, said her daughter Susan. Until then, the black workers had to stay out of sight in the back.

Rita followed friends to Los Angeles in 1955 in search of opportunity and found work as a clerk with the county probation department. In L.A. she met Wilbur E. Walters, who would forge a career as an aerospace engineer. They married on New Year’s Eve of 1955.

Walters left the work force for 14 years to focus on raising three children and was outraged when her son’s elementary school wanted to expel him permanently because of his learning disability. She refused to accept that fate, he stayed in school, and David Walters now works as a campus aide at a school for children with disabilities.

She ran for the school board twice and lost, winning her seat on the third try. By this time, she was divorced and gradually completing an education that would culminate in a master’s in business administration at UCLA.

During the integration wars, Walters once publicly speculated about whether her anti-busing board colleague Roberta Weintraub was a racist. Yet the two gradually developed a mutual respect and later a friendship that continued for the rest of their lives.

Walters even insisted that her daughter get to know Weintraub and Tom Bartman, another anti-busing board member.

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“She would make me talk to Tom and Roberta,” Susan Walters recalled. “She wouldn’t let me be angry about them.”

Walters also is survived by her third child, Philip.

Public memorial arrangements are being organized by the local office of Rep. Karen Bass.

Dakota Smith and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.


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