Black History Month is traditionally a time to not only honor but to celebrate the achievements made by Black Americans in the face of adversity and enormous social, economic and political odds.
2020 was a historic year for African-Americans, in ways both bad and good.
Black Americans disproportionately experienced the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, mourned the passing of civil rights icon Representative John Lewis and faced race-fueled attacks and police brutality, including the killing of George Floyd, which unexpectedly prompted nationwide protests and a sparked a movement for racial justice.
The nation elected Kamala Harris as its first Black vice president and Raphael Warnock, a Baptist preacher, became Georgia’s first Black senator — barriers torn down thanks to the tireless efforts African-American women like Stacey Abrams, who fought anti-voter suppression organization Fair Fight, and LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund.
We kick off Black History by honoring a world-changing African-American woman and acknowledge her proper place in Black American political history as a true changemaker: U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters, the Democrat from California.
Born Maxine Moore Carr in St. Louis on August 15, 1938, Representative Waters grew up the fifth of 13 children raised by Velma Lee Carr Moore, a single mother. At age 13, she landed her first job working as a busgirl in a whites-only restaurant in the city’s downtown. After graduating high school in 1956, she married Edward Waters and had two children (the couple divorced in 1972).
She then moved to Los Angeles with her children, where she worked in garment factories, as a telephone operator and as an assistant teacher and volunteer coordinator at Head Start, then a new federal program for children from poor families. She went on join the board of Essence magazine and to receive a bachelor’s degree in sociology from what is today California State University, Los Angeles.
In 1976, she was elected to the California Assembly, where she cemented her status as a passionate local politician and social activist fighting for legislation to prevent California pension funds from investing in companies doing business with South Africa during the apartheid era, for which she received that nation’s highest honor in 2008.
Waters was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990, when she set about tackling issues that matter to residents of her district, which now stretches from the multicultural melting pot that is inner-city south Los Angeles to the predominantly white middle-class suburb of Torrance.
Over her decades-long career in politics, the outspoken congresswoman has been especially focused on impacting the lives of minorities, women, and poor communities, championing causes including police brutality, a lack of affordable housing and predatory banking practices.
From chairing the Congressional Black Caucus in the late 1990s to her current role leading the influential Financial Services Committee, which oversees everything from banks to Wall Street — the first woman and African-American to do so — the 82-year-old fixture in the storied halls of the United States Capitol still manages to balance a steady stream of speeches, hearings and media appearances.
In the aftermath of the angry, pro-Trump mob storming the Capitol, injuring more than 50 police officers and killing one, Waters grilled the chief of the Capitol Police about not being prepared for the onslaught of protestors-turned-rioters that included violent, right-wing extremist groups.
Never one to hold her sharp tongue, she often aims incendiary comments at political enemies like Donald Trump, who referred to her as “Crazy Maxine” and made her the target of conservative firebrands like former Fox News Host Bill O’Reilly, who compared her hair to a “James Brown wig,” to which she clapped back, “I am a strong black woman and I cannot be intimidated.”
Indeed, it’s that fiery temperament and courage to speak her mind that prompted millennial and Generation Z admirers to give her a nickname of their own: “Auntie Maxine.” Her popularity with youth has seen her young admirers post supportive tweets, flattering memes and even a cartoon depicting the congresswoman as a superhero.
Waters credits young people with teaching her pop culture terms like “woke” (socially aware and politically engaged) and “shade” (showing contempt, often with eye rolls, side eye or verbal barbs).
At Glamour magazine’s 2017 Women of the Year Awards, Waters spoke directly to young women, telling them “I don’t want you to be intimidated by anything or anyone.”
She encouraged them to pursue public service: “I want you to do everything you can to get ready to run for office.”
It’s likely that the barrier-breaking darling of the left has inspired many women, black women, in particular, to follow in her footsteps and pre-bookmark their own place in history books.
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