Burke, Yvonne Braithwaite 1932–

views updated May 21 2018

Yvonne Braithwaite Burke 1932

Lawyer, politician

At a Glance


A pioneer in any field is deserving of recognition. But when the pioneering spirit belongs to an African-American woman forging ahead in the realm of American politics, it is especially deserving of attention. Yvonne Braithwaite Burke has achieved a number of firsts during her career in American politics. In the late 1960s, she was the first African-American woman elected to the California State Assembly, and was the first African-American woman elected to Congress from the American West. Incidentally, she was also the first member of Congress to give birth during her term in office. She was the first African-American vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and was the first woman to head the Congressional Black Caucus. She became the first African-American member of the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, a position she has held on and off since 1978. Time magazine once selected her as one of Americas 200 Future Leaders, and she was named as Woman of the Year by the Los Angeles Times.

Burke was born on October 5, 1932, and grew up in Los Angeles. In 1949, after graduating high school, she traveled north to Berkeley to attend the University of California at Berkeley. She also was a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. In her junior year she transferred back down to Los Angeles to attend the University of California at Los Angeles, and earned her undergraduate degree from the institution. In 1956 Burke graduated in the top third of her class to earn her juris doctorate from the University of Southern California Law School. While attending USC, she and two Jewish students were refused membership in the womens law society and so launched their own rival group.

Burke shone early in her career as a defender of public interest. In 1965, after the infamous and wildly destructive Watts riots in Los Angeles, she played a key role in organizing the legal defense for those charged in the riots. Soon after, she was named by the governor to the McCone Commission, which was charged with determining the cause of the riots.

Burkes political career began in earnest in 1966 with her first firsther election as the first African-American assemblywoman in California. She served three two-year terms in the California legislature as representative of the states 63rd Assembly District. Among the causes she championed during these years

At a Glance

Born on October 5, 1932, in Los Angeles, CA; married William A. Burke; children: Autumn. Education: Attended University of California at Berkeley, c. 1949-51; University of California at Los Angeles, bachelors degree; University of Southern California Law School, juris doctorate, 1956.

Career: Lawyer, 1956-; organized legal defense after Watts riots, 1965; served on California governors McCone commission to investigate riots, 1965; California 63rd Assembly District, assemblywoman, 1966-72; U.S. Congressional Representative, 1972-70; Los Angeles County Supervisor, Fourth District, 1979-80, Second District, 1992-; chair of the Board of Supervisors, Los Angeles County, 1993-94, 1997-98, 2003-04; Second District Education and Policy Foundation, founder, 2000-.

Memberships: Democratic National Convention, vice chair, 1972; L.A. Federal Reserve Bank, past chairman; US Olympic Organizing Committee, vice chair, 1984; Metropolitan Transportation Authority, bd of dirs, chair; Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority; L.A. Coliseum Commission; Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO); National Academy of Public Administration, fellow.

Awards: One of Americas 200 Future Leaders, Time Magazine; Woman of the Year, the Los Angeles Times, 1996; Alumni of the Year, UCLA, 1996.

Addresses: Office Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Hall of Administration, 500 W Temple St, Los Angels, CA 90012.

were prison reform, child care, education, and equal opportunities for minorities and women. When state legislature proved too unresponsive to Burkes change-minded ways, she set her sights on a seat in the U.S. Congress. Her winning Congressional bid made her the first African-American woman elected to Congress from California, or any other state in the American West. She was chosen vice chair of the 1972 Democratic National Convention, another first for African Americans, and remained in Washington D.C. for one six-year term, from 1972 to 1978. I came along at a time when there was a demand to give men greater visibility and opportunity, Burke is quoted as saying in Columbia Book of Quotations. In white society they were saying, Women cant do it. In black society, they were saying, Women do too much. Its a diabolical situation.

While in Congress, Burke also became the first member of Congress to give birth while in office. Autumn, her daughter with husband William A. Burke, a Los Angeles businessman, was born in 1973. She also has a stepdaughter, Christine Burke. Burke left the nations capitol in 1978 to become the first African-American member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. After just one year, however, she was not reelected to her position, which was the first failure in what had been for Burke an unblemished political career. For more than a decade, her position in American politics had risen steadily. She also lost a bid for the California Attorney Generals office, which was another setback.

Burke may have failed to win an elected office in 1980, but she was no less a champion for various issues in Los Angeles. She was effective as chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) board of directors and a member of the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority. She also is a member of the L.A. Coliseum Commission, the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), and is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. She was chair of the L.A. Federal Reserve Bank, and was vice chair of the 1984 U.S. Olympics Organizing Committee. She has sat on boards of numerous organizations and corporations, including Nestle.

Burke regained a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1992, and has remained on the board since. She was chair of the board in 1993-94, 1997-98, and 2003-04. She has worked ardently on the behalf of children, especially those in foster homes, and public transportation issues. Burke ran unopposed for the supervisors seat in 2000, and so used her campaign funds to establish the Second District Education and Policy Foundation. The group provided $180,000 in scholarships to students in Los Angeles Second District by 2003.


Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, County of Los Angeles Official Website, http://burke.co.la.ca.us (August 16, 2003).

This Day in History: Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, About, www.about.com (August 16, 2003).

Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, Africana, www.africana.com (August 16, 2003).

Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, Columbia Book of Quotations Online, www.bartleby.com/66/88/9188.html (August 16, 2003).

Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, The HistoryMakers, www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/biography.asp?bioindex=97&category=politicalmakers (August 16, 2003).

Brenna Sanchez

Burke, Yvonne Brathwaite

views updated May 08 2018

Burke, Yvonne Brathwaite

October 5, 1932

Yvonne Brathwaite was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles. She received an associate's degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1951; a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1953; and a law degree from the University of Southern California in 1956, the year in which she was admitted to the California bar and began a private law practice. In 1965 California Governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown appointed Burke as attorney for the McCone Commission, which investigated the Los Angeles Watts Riots of that year.

In 1966 Burke was elected to the first of her three two-year terms representing the Sixty-third District in the California State Assembly. As California's first black assembly-woman she focused on prison reform, child care, equality for women, and civil rights. In 1972 she served as vice chairperson of the Democratic National Convention, where she received national attention as a promoter of changes in the party's rules enabling greater participation by minorities. That same year she was also elected to the first of three terms representing the Thirty-seventh District in the United States House of Representatives and became the first black congresswoman from California. In Congress she again focused on social issues, especially housing and urban development. In 1975 she was appointed to the powerful House Committee on Appropriations, and in 1976 she became chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Although her early political career made her one of the most prominent black women in American politics, her political campaigns in the late 1970s were unsuccessful, and she then concentrated on her career as a lawyer and senior partner at the Los Angeles firm of Jones, Day, Deavis, Bogue. In 1978 she ran for state attorney general, winning the Democratic nomination but losing the general election to Republican George Deukmejian. On July 6, 1979, Governor Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. appointed her to a vacancy on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, a position she held until an election defeat in 1980. She resumed her political career in 1992, when she was elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. There she focused her attention on the needs and education of children. She has served as chair of the Board of Supervisors for three terms, most recently in 20032004.

See also Congressional Black Caucus; Politics in the United States


Burke, Yvonne Brathwaite. "New Arenas of Black Influence."Interview by Steven Edgington, 1982. Oral History Program, Powell Library, University of California, Los Angeles.

Gray, Pamela Lee. "Yvonne Brathwaite Burke: The Congressional Career of California's First Black Congresswoman, 19721978." Ph.D. diss., University of Southern California, 1987.

siraj ahmed (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005