Salem NAACP President talks MLK Jr. Day, race relations

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Salem NAACP President talks MLK Jr. Day, race relations

Published 7:49 p.m. PT Jan. 15, 2017 | Updated 9:12 a.m. PT Jan. 16, 2017

Nearly 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

It’s said King’s final words were directed to musician Ben Branch, who was scheduled to perform that night at an event King was attending. “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight,” King said. “Play it real pretty.”

The life and death of the iconic civil rights activist and religious leader have heavily influenced race relations in the United States over the years.

“MLK Jr. used the pulpit for teaching and preaching … that ‘all men are created equal.’ ” said Benny Williams, president of the Salem-Keizer Branch of the NAACP. “(He) reflected the value of community service more than anyone.”

In commemoration of the MLK holiday, we sat down to talk with Williams about local race relations.

For eight years, Williams has served as the president of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The national association was founded in 1909 and is now one of the oldest civil rights organization in the country.

Though progress has been made locally and nationally, he said: “There is still work to be done.”

A lack of representation

One of the biggest challenges, Williams said, is a lack of community.

 “Salem does not have an African-American community; it doesn’t exist,” he said. “To this day, you would be hard-pressed to find an area where multiple African-American (people or families) reside.

“Salem is the only place I’ve been to in the country without that in a major city.”

People identifying as black or African-American make up less than 2 percent of Salem demographics, a consistently low percentage for more than 15 years.

Williams said that is why there has been “no real discussion of how to bring a physical appreciation of MLK Jr. to Salem,” such as naming a street after him as most major cities across the country have done.

A need for leadership

It isn’t just a matter of demographics in the area that concerns William and fellow activists. Representation in schools, businesses and city leadership is important, too.

Though about half the Salem-Keizer School District’s students identify as a race other than white, Williams said it is rare to go to local stores, restaurants, or businesses and see faces of color in leadership roles.

“They are graduating them, but where are they at after?” he asked.

Williams and his wife, Marilyn, first came to Salem 15 years ago from Chicago — which by contrast has a black population that makes up 32.4 percent of the city — when his wife was recruited by the Salem-Keizer School District.

They came to Salem, Williams said, “out of her desire to make a difference.” She now serves as a pastor.

Marilyn’s recruitment was part of an effort to increase diversity in the district. Williams said there hasn’t been a coordinated effort of the same scope since, leading to only one or two of the original eight recruited that year to still be working in the district.

The ratio between students of color and staff of color is very different, with 10 percent or less of the district’s staff identifying as something other than white.

“We are doing a disservice to our students,” Williams said. “Visually seeing someone of your own race leads you to inspire to be like them. It controls how students look at their future.”

This has been an issue, along with topics such as culturally relevant materials, with other education institutions, including Willamette University, and leadership groups like the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, Williams said. The excuse is often, “We can’t find anyone” or “People don’t want to come here.”

“If you only reach out in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, they (people of color) don’t exist; if they do, they are going to go to Portland,” he said.

A time for change

Though there has been a “history of intolerance” in Salem, Williams said — especially with a Ku Klux Klan presence in Salem beginning in the 1920s — many have worked to build strong relationships between communities of color and groups including local law enforcement, public schools, and business leaders.

These relationships, he said, have lead to more diversity than ever before.

This progress could be threatened with the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump and his opposition to certain communities of color. People from all walks of life, Williams said, are “prepared to re-fight fights we thought were fought and put to bed.”

“The question now isn’t if that diversity will continue, but if it will continue to be embraced,” he said. “As long as we continue to work together, we will continue to move forward.”

Contact Natalie at npate@StatesmanJournal.com, 503-399-6745, or follow her on Twitter @Nataliempate or on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist

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