Diane Watson and other African American Leaders from the Civil Rights Generation
Last week, President Barack Obama visited Los Angeles in a last-ditch attempt to save Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat and to remind “change agents” throughout the state what the change we all voted for two years ago was really about. The President did a luncheon fundraiser for Boxer at USC before speaking to a crowd of 37,000, who waited in rain and drizzle that came intermittently throughout the morning. Fo-shizzle, my nizzles! That’s how serious the people are about connecting with the man who is changing American politics. Obama is like a battery charger. Once you plug into him, you come away very energized. With a base like his, the Republicans should be afraid. Very afraid. Our generation, and maybe the last two generations, haven’t seen anything like it.
A funny thing happened to me during the time before the President came out for the luncheon. I was standing in the luncheon hall conversing with a longtime friend, who is a judge I hadn’t seen for the better part of 15 years. She had attended the 100 Black Men Gala the week before, stated how nice it was, and asked about my mother who had been a longtime member of her church until couple years ago.
We were just kinda catchin up on each other’s lives when Congresswoman Diane Watson walked in. The 100 Black Men had given retiring Rep. Watson their Life Achievement Award the week before, which I recommended. The Congresswoman greets us both, then tells the judge, “Anthony is one of my sons. I have to spank him every now and then, like another person she called, but I consider him mine.”
Now, wasn’t that a grand introduction? I do consider Diane Watson like a mother to me. And like my own mom, whom I love very much, it always does my heart good when I see her. However, like children get on their parent’s nerves, parents also get on children’s nerves. When I visit my real mother, and the conversation takes a sudden turn? You know that turn? When your mom starts talking about stuff you don’t want to talk about, or starts fussin’ (when they don’t think you come by enough) that usually causes the visit to be suddenly shortened. “Okay Mom, gotta go. Love you, Bye.”
Well, I find myself getting that way with my congresswoman. There’s a story behind the story that’s really not about “who spanked whom” but what happens when kids choose a different direction than their parents and question their parent about it. What audacity, asking, “Mom, why’d you do that?” The luncheon wasn’t the place to deal with, cause y’all know I will speak up and act up if I have to. But I was there to see the President and didn’t want to kill my buzz. Instead, I choose to reflect in, where else? My column, of course.
I first want to say that I LOVE DIANE WATSON. I repeat. I LOVE DIANE WATSON. It’s a 25-year relationship that I valued much and became strained a couple years ago when I questioned why her and another congresswoman didn’t follow their constituents lead in support of Obama. We had a very ugly and public exchange at Mark Ridley-Thomas’ swearing-in for supervisor and had barely spoken since. I haven’t spoken with that other congresswoman either, but I’m fine with that. I have a different affinity for Diane. Our perspectives were certainly generational. The deference to my elders, certainly not inconsequential.
But the reality was our community was at a crossroads where we were about to see something that had never been done before. Hindsight is twenty-twenty and no one could predict for sure what the outcome would be, but my generation, and certainly the two generations behind me, knew we were in a defining moment in time. The generation chasm between Diane and myself was never more in evidence than during this time, as she is from the civil rights generation and I from the post-civil rights generation.
The civil right generation, next to the generation of African Americans that broke slavery, was our greatest generation. They most certainly were the generation of the 20th Century. Like slavery was supposed to last forever, segregation was supposed to last nearly as long. They broke barriers and for the remainder of the century, those who came after them were too deferential to the “civil righters.” Like “good kids,” we didn’t talk back to the legends and “stayed in our place” while Reagan rolled back all the gains of the Civil Rights movement.
But there were the realities that came of age in the midst of the Presidential Election of 2008. First, this was the 21st Century and a new barrier had been broken, one that the civil rights generation thought was unbreakable and our generation saw as the barrier we had to break.
Second, the civil rights generation, now septuagenarians and octogenarians, needed to trust that another generation knew as much as they did. We’d been saying, for a long time, that the world had changed and that there was a more effective way to do things, and Barack was proving it. This was finally our time.
Third, the time when we didn’t talk back to the civil righters had passed. They could talk to us any kind of way (and they did) when we were in our 20s and 30s. We’re now in our 40s and 50s; we know what we want for our lives and can verbalize it quite well.
Fourth, there was the realization the generations after the civil rights generation had a network far beyond what the civil righters realized and that we could play around them (and we did) and no longer needed their permission to advance the best interest of black America. Remember, the Congressional Black Caucus never did endorse Barack Obama’s candidacy. But they found out as the “gatekeepers” of Black America, they could no longer hold the younger generations behind the gate and in fact most of their rhetoric was being ignored.
Fifth and lastly, this was larger than any single relationship. Watson claimed her reasons were personal. But it was never about her. It was about who she served and who she went against. New Mexico Governor, Bill Richardson, had a personal reason not to endorse change, but he did and landed on the right side of history. Civil Rights legend, John Lewis, had personal reasons not to endorse change, but his constituents sat him down and told him, “you don’t go with change, you don’t represent with us.” And Lewis himself said his biggest fear was that he’d be caught on the wrong side of history.
Well, Diane Watson had to be dragged, kicking and screaming the whole way, to the right side of history. And now she’s serving the first African American President and part of a Congress that passed universal health care, something she worked her whole life for in the California legislature and something seven Presidents couldn’t do. Some parents don’t like their children talking back, even when they’re right and even when they’re grown. To me, it was worth having the conversation-given the outcome. An outcome that would’ve never come about had we followed “our leader.” Parents need to acknowledge when their children were right…and learn the lessons that come from the mouths of babes.
It was interesting that she let me know that she was still angry in a codified way (and I’m okay with that too), but was jumping up and down holding up a newspaper when the President came out like my seventeen-year-old cheerleading daughter. Quite amusing but also quite fulfilling watching Congresswoman Watson beam with pride at her President.
The irony here is that this would all play out at the source of our difference, a Barack Obama luncheon. I might be the kid that talks back and has to be thumped on the back of the head from time to time. But I was also a son who was right to ignore a mother’s word, one time, and follow my own mind in a defining moment for our nation AND our people. A whole three generations after the civil righters did the same.
Word to “the Motha” of L.A. black politics, I’m glad you finally landed on the right side of history.