Lead Story Local News Obituaries Politics West Edition

L.A.’s first black councilwoman dies

LOS ANGELES — Rita Walters, the first black woman elected to the Los Angeles City Council, is being remembered by local politicians as a friend, a trailblazer and a consummate public servant.

Walters died Feb. 20. She was 89.

A longtime city library commissioner and a former teacher and member of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, Walters is being remembered as a pioneer who blazed the trail and always put the welfare of her constituents first.

“During a time of great oppression for African Americans, Ms. Walters was inspired to begin her career as a public servant, insisting on gaining respect wherever she went,” said Councilman Curren Price, who holds the 9th District seat Walters once occupied. “She was a pioneer that laid the groundwork for blacks and other people of color for generations to come.”

Price said Walters was committed to ensuring minorities gained equal employment, and that she challenged the use of force by police against people of color.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said he was, “Sad to hear of the passing of Walters” and called her a “model public servant who served our city passionately on the City Council and the Library Commission.”

“Her leadership planted the seeds that have enabled downtown to blossom,” Garcetti said. “My thoughts are with her loved ones during this time.”

County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas called Walters a “dear friend.”

“My sincerest condolences go out to the family and friends of Rita Walters,” Ridley-Thomas said. “My heart breaks for the community she so diligently served on the City Council and the Library Commission for over 15 years.”

Ridley-Thomas, who served with Walters on the city council in the 1990s, remembered his former colleague as a civil rights advocate and a pillar to the community and a model public servant.

“She inspired the minds of future generations of women of color to strive for their dreams and accomplish their goals regardless of their adversities,” he said. “To my dear friend and fellow City Council colleague, may you rest in peace. To her family, my thoughts and prayers are with you. May God continue to bless you and keep you during this difficult time.” 

On Twitter, Ridley-Thomas said of Walters, “She fought hard for justice and peace.”

U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, remembers Walters as a friend and a mentor.

“Rita Walters was a close friend of my family and a mentor who encouraged my involvement in public service every step of the way starting with nominating me to serve as a student representative to a Board of Education Task Force when I was in middle school,” Bass said. “From her service as the only black member of a school board whose majority opposed forced integration to her service as the first black woman elected to the L.A. City Council, her lifelong commitment to fighting for a better Los Angeles blazed the trail for so many of us who grew up in LAUSD schools.”

Jan Perry, who succeeded Walters in the 9th District council seat, called Walters “a force of nature” who was “always a force for good.”

“She was a tenacious advocate for people with special abilities,” Perry said. “She was a true believer in the power of reading and the right to an excellent education for all people. As a councilwoman, she always pushed the city bureaucracy to provide more services for the families in her council district.”

Council President Nury Martinez said Walters was an inspiration to young women throughout Los Angeles, including herself.

Eighth District Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson noted that his father was Walters’ church pastor.

“I think the thing that stands out for me about Councilwoman Walters is her incredible gentleness, kindness, and force of human spirit,” Harris-Dawson said. “You almost don’t think of her as a politician because she never lowered herself to the depths that politics can go and the rancor in which people can relate to each other. Ms. Walters never ever did that.”

Fourth District Councilman David Ryu said Walters moved to his Ddistrict after her time on the council and added she was active at community meetings well into her 80s.

Walters, a former teacher, served on the LAUSD board for more than a decade before being elected to the City Council, filling the 9th District seat left vacant by the 1990 death of Councilman Gilbert Lindsay. 

She held the City Council seat until 2001, and the next year she was appointed to the city’s Library Commission, on which she served for 15 years until retiring in 2017 with a commendation from Mayor Garcetti.

Walters was a graduate of Shaw University in North Carolina and had a master’s degree in business administration from UCLA.

She was also a longtime civil rights advocate, working with groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP. She taught adult-education courses and English-as-a-second-language classes in Watts before being elected to the LAUSD board in 1980.

Councilman Price said during her time on the school board, Walters demanded that schools be integrated and that she was “furious’” when black students were excluded.

The City Council paid tribute to Walters Feb. 21 with Councilman Price making the motion to adjourn the council meeting in her memory.