A long Southland political career ended on Tuesday. Yvonne Burke attended her last meeting as a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. KPCC's Frank Stoltze says Burke achieved many firsts during her four decades in politics.
Frank Stoltze: Burke was the first black woman elected to the California legislature, the first black woman from the state to serve in Congress, and the first woman on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.
Yvonne Burke: There's no question that I had parents who were high-aspiring people for me and who did everything to make sure that I had all the music lessons, that I had good grades, that I took advantage of every opportunity. And I had parents who did not accept excuses.
Stoltze: Seventy-six-year-old Burke is a Los Angeles native. She was student body president at Manual Arts High School. But she also couldn't attend that school's camp because she was black. For the same reason, people later denied her a job at a department store, and an apartment.
Burke: The generation that I came through, you accepted that there were adversities as a result of you being an African-American and a woman. And you learned how to face those and fight them.
Stoltze: So it seemed appropriate that members of the USC marching band showed up at her last board of supervisors meeting to play the Trojan fight song. Burke graduated from USC Law School.
[USC Trojan fight song "Fight On"]
Supervisor Gloria Molina said Burke's success helped inspire her and many other women and minorities to go into politics.
Gloria Molina: I don't think there would have been a President-elect Barack Obama had not it been for a Yvonne Burke, who was part of paving the way for that kind of greatness. (clapping)
Stoltze: Burke was a staff attorney on the McCone Commission that investigated the Watts riots. She served as a UC Regent and chaired the Federal Reserve Bank in Los Angeles.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky remembers the first time he saw Burke in action. It was 1972, and he was a college student. She was chairing an especially contentious session of the Democratic National Convention in Miami.
Zev Yaroslavsky: I remember sitting in front of my TV set watching you and I said that's – I can't say exactly the way I would have said in front of my TV set – but I said that's a woman of courage. (everybody laughs)
Stoltze: Yaroslavsky called Burke a peacemaker. Longtime aide Mike Bohlke said she was always calm. He recalled her intervention when two powerful colleagues got into it during a Metropolitan Transportation Authority meeting.
Michael Bohlke: She looked at them and in her own way – basically like a mother would – told them both to sit down, stop bickering. And they both really both sheepishly understood they needed to get down to business.
Stoltze: Burke said one of her great disappointments was witnessing the chronic problems of Martin Luther King Hospital in her district. Some activists have blamed her.
Burke: King was a failure of the system. And it was a failure that I was unable to totally overcome.
Stoltze: But she recalled some proud moments, too – especially when people told her she inspired them in some way. Burke didn't lay claim to any great legislative accomplishments.
Burke: It was making sure the streets were repaired or that we had more parks – that we would have libraries that provided good programs for children that maybe didn't have the facilities in their home to be able to study. It's all the little things.
Stoltze: At the board of supervisors meeting, her colleagues and county staff stood to applaud her achievements, real and symbolic.
Burke: Well, thank you so much. What can you say? This has been an exciting 16 years.
Stoltze: Burke wiped a tear from her eye, and gaveled to session her last meeting.