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Commentary: Remembering Louise Riles

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, August 26, 2011

Years after Phoenix school teacher Mary Louise Phillips married Wilson Riles, a friend confided, "Louise, we thought you'd lost your mind."

Mr. Riles was teaching migrant black children in remote Eastern Arizona. The new Mrs. Riles left the comforts of Phoenix to live in a logging cabin with no running water - not even toilet facilities.

I met Mrs. Riles years later in Sacramento, where her husband had taken a job with the State Department of Education. In 1970, when Wilson Riles asked his wife and children if he should run against his then boss, the ultra-conservative Max Rafferty, the entire family, including Mrs. Riles, said "no."

Riles ran anyway, and Louise Riles stood by him. She left her job as a third grade teacher to campaign. She was tall, elegant, soft spoken, diplomatic and effective. Riles, the first African American elected statewide in California, served three terms as Superintendent.

Louise Riles reminds me of my own mother. She is one of a vanishing generation of college educated middle class black women born into a harsh segregated world. They managed to rise above discrimination to make our communities stronger and our nation better.


Ginger Rutland writes for The Sacramento Bee opinion pages.

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