FROM THE OUTSIDE, the Greater Union Baptist Church in Compton isn't much to look at, a square, small building on a street of square, small houses. Inside, it has only nine rows of pews beneath dim fluorescent bulbs. It is the sort of church that finds glory in its faith, not on its walls.
On this sunny afternoon, somber black women, softly nodding to the words of the speakers who pass through the pulpit, have filled about half the pews. A few men are interspersed among them, one of them white. It is Monday, Jan. 16--the official observance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday--and the friends of Birdell Chew Moore have gathered to bury her.
Four rows into the audience sits California Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, who represents an extremely poor, mostly black, though also heavily Latino, district in nearby South-Central Los Angeles. She wears a stylish blue suit, a black-and-white blouse and a large question-mark-shaped lapel pin. She listens as the mourners remember Moore, her decades of work in the community, her labors to build the Watts Health Foundation. About halfway through the service, the minister calls on Waters to speak, and she gathers up her notes and moves to the front of the room. When her name comes over the microphone, there is a flutter of applause.
Waters' voice is soft and strong. "I cannot think of a better way to honor Martin Luther King and Birdell than to be here today," she begins. "Most of the time she would call me and say, 'When are you going to do something "about" ' and then launch into a tirade about the 'about'," she says. The room warms with smiles of recognition. All that remains of Moore are memories, and Waters lets the audience hold that one for a moment. Then she continues. "When I first met her, she kind of scared me." The smiles open into laughter. And above it, Waters talks about watching Moore, forceful and fearless, shout down politicians and bankers, the gray-suited ambassadors of distant power, when they came to see just what it was the people in Watts wanted. "It was delightful," Waters says rapturously. "It was powerful, it was inspiring, it was motivating."
Sitting in the back row, listening to Waters describe the dead woman's power and presence, it occurs to me that she could just as well be describing herself. First elected to the state Assembly in 1976, this daughter of a welfare mother has become--through a combination of ferocity and ingenuity--one of the most powerful members of the California Legislature and arguably the nation's most influential black female elected official. A close ally of Jesse Jackson and Assembly Speaker Willie L. Brown Jr., well-connected in Democratic circles on both coasts, Waters, 50, is an impassioned voice for liberal causes in local, state and national politics. Waters is "one of those people who walks into a room and everyone knows, instantly, that she's there," says political consultant Gerald J. Austin, who ran Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign. Not everyone in the political world likes Maxine Waters, but no one likes to cross her. Waters affects even the most seasoned politicians the way Birdell Moore affected her: She scares them.
In this era of smooth, unoffensive, indistinguishable elected officials, Waters is defiantly anomalous, a bantamweight throwing jabs in a room of game-show hosts. There's nothing pastel about Waters; she lives in primary colors. Some politicians worship the spotlight; Waters reveres power--the power to move legislation, to bend the bureaucracy, to make her agenda the state's agenda. Representing a community with needs that stretch the imagination, she is a dutiful and disciplined student of the possible.
When I tune back in at the church, Waters is winding up. She has, like any good preacher, brought her story around to the here and now. She is no longer attending to the congregation's individual grief, their personal sorrow; now she is speaking to a deeper loss, the communal loss heavy in the room this afternoon: the shaken belief that these men and women can meaningfully confront the crime and poverty corroding their community.
That was the belief--the liberating mixture of anger and hope--that brought Waters into politics 20 years ago. Her anger endures, but on days like this, when the past's bright promise is remembered, and then interred, hope frays. You can see it in the weary faces in this room. You can sometimes see it in Waters, too--a thin mist of uncertainty that clouds her bright, hard face. For all her faith, all her energy, all her power--all the faith and energy of people like Birdell Moore, of Martin Luther King himself--Waters knows that on the streets outside this church, anonymous young men who do not remember King's name shoot each other every week over turf or drugs or pique, and those who live long enough become grandparents at 32. Sorrow seems to be permanently etched into this landscape, like the dirty streets and the distant blue sky.