by Tessa Rissacher

“BWOPA is a ‘whop’ to be reckoned with” wrote columnist Ethel Payne in 1974.¹ The organization, then only six years old, was already packing a political punch and hitting its stride in what would come to be a fifty-plus year enterprise. It began in 1968 with a clearcut goal: get Ronald Dellums elected to Congress. The members of “Bay Area Women for Dellums” were twelve in number, and were all bright, well-connected, professionally active and Black.

Brought together by Edith M. Austin, mesdames Alfreda Abbott, Margaret Amoureaux, Belva Davis, Ruth Hagwood-Webb, Aileen Hernandez, Ella Hill Hutch, Mary Jane Johnson, Dorothy Pitts, Teola Sanders, Frances Taylor and Dezie Woods-Jones began to meet, plan, fundraise and organize. Their ranks quickly grew and their efforts were rewarded when Dellums was elected in 1970. So why stop a good thing? They carried on — with a name change — Women Organized for Political Action (WOPA).²

A SEAT AT THE TABLE. Mary Widener chats with Glenn Kitzenberger during Rainbow Sign’s opening weekend in August 1971, in the conference room that would be BWOPA’s headquarters throughout the 1970s.

August of 1971 saw the birth of what would become their primary meeting place: the Black cultural center Rainbow Sign. Housed in a renovated Berkeley mortuary and dedicated to art, education and uplift, it was the brainchild of music promoter and impresario Mary Ann Pollar (1927–1999). Supporting her were ten bright, well-connected and professionally active Black women: among them — Edith M. Austin, Belva Davis, Mary Jane Johnson and Dorothy Pitts.

It was natural that Rainbow Sign should be a home to WOPA. Its conference rooms could serve their meetings and its large program hall could accommodate banquet luncheons, galas and press conferences, such as when they brought Shirley Chisholm to speak on behalf of Dellums’ reelection in 1971⁴ or when they hosted a “Chitterling Feast” with Josephine Baker in 1973.⁵ Mary Ann Pollar’s managerial and cultural savvy ensured that Rainbow Sign would, as its brochures promised, “showcase the best there is of the Black experience” and beside her, the Women Organized for Political Action brought their own prowess to serve the Black experience of the future.

Heading the group was Edith M. Austin (1929–1984), a writer and political editor for the Sun Reporter and the director of community relations at the East Bay Skills Center, an educational and vocational training program.⁷ Austin was an incredibly influential woman. “She was one of my heroes” said Rainbow Sign program coordinator Charles Brown in a 2017 interview. “She was a political genius…she played dominoes with the boys at the bar, ran political campaigns… she got whatever she wanted to have done, done. She was a terror.”⁸

(A woman of considerable size, Austin was a pioneer in body positivity too. When, in 1971, Vice President Spiro Agnew made a crack about the highest priority for the Republican party being to make sure that the “hefty” New York Congresswoman [and outspoken critic of Agnew] Bella Abzug did not show up to Congress in hot pants, Austin responded defiantly by having a pair custom-designed to wear to the upcoming Skills Center picnic. “To hell with the Vice President,” she told the press.)⁹

Austin was also a hero to newswoman and Rainbow Sign board member Belva Davis (b. 1932), who credits Austin as the most valuable connection she made during her tenure at the Sun Reporter (from 1961 to 1968). Davis writes:

Heavy, dark, her hair in a natural that looked as wild as a revolutionary’s, Edith blew into rooms like a hurricane — a concentration of force and mass to be reckoned with. She wrapped herself in long ethnic garbs, refused to take lip off anyone; and she could take the top Democratic politicos of the day, wrap them around her pinkie and kick’em on their way out the door. She knew a lot of things that a lot of people didn’t want known. I knew I never, ever wanted to make her mad.

Most Sunday mornings, Edith hosted her salons where up and coming black politicians, such as future Berkeley congressman Ron Dellums would gather for grits, eggs, biscuits and strategizing. The attendees would crowd into her Telegraph Ave. apartment in Berkeley, filling the available sitting space on the furniture and floor. She called them her “main horses” and all were men except Edith and me. I was the only woman invited and I understood from the outset I wasn’t there to speak but to listen–listen and learn.¹⁰

No lessons were wasted on Belva Davis. Hired by KPIX Channel 5 TV in 1966, she became the first female African-American television journalist on the West Coast. Audiences came to know her not only for her race and gender but for the elegant and unflappable calm she projected amidst any variety of chaotic situations, as when she covered the Free Speech Movement, Black Panther rallies, or later, the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk.¹¹

The other WOPA members on Rainbow Sign’s board were trailblazers too. Mary Jane Johnson was president of the Berkeley branch of the N.A.A.C.P and the sole African-American representative on the Berkeley Unified District School Board, where she fought for the desegregation of Berkeley’s schools and championed quality education for Black students.¹²

Dorothy Pitts (1932–2018) worked in Social Planning for the City of Berkeley and served as the East Bay president of the National Association of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs. Edith Austin called her “a modern-day Sojourner Truth.”¹³ In the post-war years, Pitts had helped turn the DeFremery Park recreation center in Oakland into a development center for rural youth who had arrived as part of the Great Migration, aiding them in adjusting to city life through social activities such as dances and concerts as well as leadership classes, democratic decision-making classes and charm school.¹⁴

Through WOPA, Johnson, Pitts and others brought the organizing expertise that they had cultivated in their various professions, sororities, clubs and mutual aid societies and applied it to electoral politics.

Some women of WOPA also brought experience they had gleaned working in the Civil Rights Movement; Dezie Woods-Jones, the youngest member of the group (b. 1941), had recently returned from a tenure with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) when Edith Austin tapped her to join her team of powerhouse organizers.

The two had worked side by side in San Francisco for the Black Conference Planning Committee (BCPC), a group of Bay Area activists who put together the first all-Black conference on the Black agenda. In their work with BCPC, as it had been with many other organizations, the women handled a great deal of the labor and yet had little to no representation. “We were doing all this work– and we did not get the respect,” Woods-Jones remembers.¹⁵

When they began to advocate for putting an African-American woman at the table, they got a lot of pushback. “That didn’t just come from the white community or white men” said Woods-Jones, “it came from a lot of our brothers who we partnered with and dearly loved.” Perhaps what was needed was a convention of sisters unto themselves. And where better to have it than Rainbow Sign — which was, as Austin wrote, “itself a symbol of Black womanhood.”¹⁶

In August of 1972, with the general election just around the corner, Austin put out a call in the papers: “BLACK WOMEN to get themselves together at a one-evening conference… the meeting called by WOPA…will make plans for political action during the ensuing year and discuss the action of Black women in the political arena.”¹⁷

There were no fees, no registration, just an open invitation to all Black women. “We thought we’d have thirty, maybe forty people show up,” said Woods-Jones. “Over three-hundred women showed up to that meeting…we were just stunned.”¹⁸ Representatives hailing from all the major East Bay cities had arrived, ready to strategize. Packed into Rainbow Sign’s hall that Thursday night, the crowd was full of energy, ready for change.

Austin addressed the room:

We are a power. Yet we have not made any demands to many of the Black brothers we help to put in office. We realize that Black women can and must produce…for example: through the collective efforts of 15 women we’ve raised a total of approximately $125,000 for Black incumbents over the last few years…However, we are not doing this for women’s lib or to emasculate Black men. We feel that all hands are needed in the struggle.¹⁹

It was clear that to achieve political power, Black people needed to unify and put their collective voice and votes behind the same candidates. It was also clear that Black women were fed up with being locked out of decision-making positions. Careful balance was required as WOPA navigated the way forward. They could not afford– and had no wish to– alienate Black men, especially their “main horses,” nor could they put up with ongoing sexism within the movement. Likewise, while they shared many of the same goals as white feminists, it was obvious that women of color were not represented in that discourse either. The big meeting at Rainbow Sign cemented their position. “We felt a passion to be unapologetically at the forefront of our Blackness,” said Woods-Jones. The following week, Austin announced it in the papers: name “changed to Black-WOPA.”²⁰

BWOPA continued to meet every other Thursday night at Rainbow Sign throughout the life of the club (1971–1977). In their earliest years, BWOPA had proved the “behind every great man…” adage true, bolstering the successful campaigns of men such as Dellums and Warren Widener, Berkeley’s first Black mayor. As BWOPA developed through the 1970s, the question became why great Black women could not also be on the forefront of public life: advocating for their concerns and their communities, running for office and fighting for change.

BWOPA kept up a vigilant awareness of what was happening politically and they worked to make their preferences known. Through mentorship, scholarships, grooming candidates, becoming candidates themselves, and throwing their support behind public figures (or threatening the opposite) they asserted a powerful presence and a formidable toughness. They kept up their grassroots organizing and mobilized “a mix of housewives, welfare recipients, day workers, union members, and professional women all linked together by a common interest in making the political process work better for the people it is supposed to serve.”²¹ BWOPA focused on getting the job done.

“We were kind of the Unstoppables,” said Woods-Jones, who became BWOPA’s first elected president. “No matter what the challenges were, the emphasis was to complete the task, to push through… other folks would say ‘shattering the glass ceiling’ — we were knocking on the door and banging down doors.” The women of BWOPA were diligent, devoted and tactical. They understood well the dictum that warned “If you’re not at the table you’re on the menu,” and their strategy followed the credo of Shirley Chisholm who said, “If they don’t offer you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

Today, BWOPA’s accomplishments are manifold. They are proud to have supported the rise of women such as Teresa Hughes, Diane Watson and Barbara Lee, to name only a few. And now, Kamala Harris, who frequented Rainbow Sign as a child, and whom BWOPA has supported throughout her career, is poised to potentially assume one of the highest decision-making positions in the nation. “There’s nothing like finally being able to see at the top of the ticket one of our own sisters,” Woods-Jones beams.

Yet, there are others within BWOPA, such as Sacramento chapter president Kula Koening, who acknowledge that while Harris’s inclusion on the ticket is a major achievement, there are lingering questions about how well she will advocate for a progressive agenda that might best serve the Black community. “But,” emphasizes Koening, “she is way closer to the social justice I want to see than Donald Trump is… and we cannot sit this one out. We’ve got a seat at the table, let’s go — it may not be who we want sitting in the seat — but they’re gonna get us closer to the social justice that we want.”²²

Koening also grants that Harris has proved herself as someone who is capable of evolution, and who is willing to listen. In The Truths We Hold, reflecting on her choice to become a prosecutor, Harris writes:

I knew part of making change was what I’d seen all my life, surrounded by adults shouting and marching and demanding justice from the outside. But I also knew there was an important role on the inside, sitting at the table where the decisions are being made. When activists come marching and banging on the doors, I wanted to be on the other side to let them in.²³

The table and doors in question could not be more important.

{1} Payne, Ethel. “BWOPA is a ‘Whop” to be Reckoned With.” Chicago Defender. Feb 2 1974. 10.

{2} Note: Women Organized for Political Action was a name suggested by Oakland City Council candidate and activist Paul Cobb.(http://www.bwopatileleads.org/about)

{3}“Rainbow Sign Opens,” The Oakland Post, September 9, 1971, 2.

{4} Austin, Edith. “Hurricane Shirley (Chisholm) Rips Through Bay Area.” Sun Reporter. Nov. 6 1971. 4.

{5} Austin, Edith. “Bay Bits with Pics: BWOPA’s Chitterling Feast with Josephine.” Sun Reporter. Nov 10, 1973. 9.

{6}Brochure, “Rainbow Sign.” 1972. Rainbow Sign archive. Courtesy of Odette Pollar.

{7}”More on Dr. Hare’s Resignation.”Sun Reporter. Mar 15, 1975. 3. ; Morris, John. “East Bay Skills Center Graduates 10 LVNs.” Sun Reporter. Feb 01, 1975. 13.

{8}Brown, Charles. Interview with author. April 2017.

{9}Williams, Carrie Davis. “Spiro Takes Fun Out of Hot Pants, Edith Objects.” Sun Reporter, Mar 13, 1971. 15.

{10}Davis, Belva, and Vicki Haddock. Never in My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman’s Life in Journalism. p.59.

{11}Belva Davis.” californiamuseum.org.

{12}Austin, Edith. “BAY BITS.” Sun Reporter. Sep 20,1975. 9.

{13} Austin, Edith. “Sun Reporter Names Woman, Man, Youth, Club of Year at Banquet.” Sun Reporter. Jun 01, 1974. 9.

{14)Grable, Chance. “DeFremery Park and Recreation Center, West Oakland.” foundsf.org.

{15} Woods-Jones, Dezie. Interview with author. Sept. 2020.

{16}Austin, Edith. “Bay Bits with Pics: BWOPA’s Chitterling Feast with Josephine.” Sun Reporter. Nov 10, 1973. 9.

{17}Austin, Edith. “Political Potpourri.” Sun Reporter. Aug 5, 1972. 3.

{18}Woods-Jones, Dezie. Interview with author. Sept 2020; Note: in “Shriver May be Peace Corpsman,” Edith Austin records the approximate number of persons at the event to be 150, Woods-Jones remembers the figure closer to 300.

{19}Allen, Fayetta. “Women Urge Involvement in Politics.” Oakland Post. Aug 10, 1972. 7.

{20}Austin, Edith. “Political Potpourri: Shriver May Be ‘Peace Corpsman for Demos” Sun Reporter. Aug 12,1972. 6.

{21}Payne, Ethel. “BWOPA is a ‘Whop” to be Reckoned With.” Chicago Defender. Feb 2 1974. 10.

{22}Koening, Kula. Interviewed by Sonseeahray Tonsall. “Sacramento BWOPA President Reacts to Biden Announcing Harris as his VPFox40. 12 Aug 2020.

{23}Harris, Kamala. The Truths We Hold: An American Journey. Penguin Books. 2019. 25.

Writer based in the Bay Area. Her work has appeared in Slate and Current Research in Digital History.