Betty Williams didn’t intentionally join racial justice efforts upon moving to Sacramento 37 years ago, but was thrust into action.
“I was raising three Black sons. Living in Sacramento, you’re going to have your challenges with racial profiling and everything else,” she said.
Her oldest son, Jamel, went to the local Toys R Us and while he was there, some other youth were accused of stealing.
“They took all of the Black kids out of the store and put them up against the wall and handcuffed all of them, including Jamel and his friend, who had nothing to do with it,” Ms. Williams recalled.
Parents went to the NAACP, asking for support. Things didn’t go quite the way she would have liked, Ms. Williams admits.
As time went on, she found herself organizing parents at her children’s schools in Elk Grove.
“They were suspending and expelling African American kids for stupid things,” she said.
Her youngest son was suspended for five days for saying, “Lord have mercy.” At the time, Black boys were increasingly being punished for allegedly sexually harassing White female classmates. Ms. Williams says a school official was making up charges to run Blacks out of the district. She formed a group called Parents With Concerns and demanded to see suspension data. Suddenly officials saw “the error of their ways.” It was then that she caught the attention of state NAACP leader Alice Huffman.
“I joined with the thought that I cannot talk about an organization that I can’t go in and support and help,” Ms. Williams said.
“I need to see what’s going on. Yes, I was frustrated with that first case with my oldest son and the racial profiling piece and I walked away with a bad taste in my mouth, but then I looked at all of the hard work that I did personally on my own and the advocacy, and I thought ‘let me take this talent and lend it to support whoever is the president and stop saying what they’re not doing and try to be a part of the solution on what they should be doing.’ That was my thought process,” she said.
Ms. Huffman had other ideas.
“She said ‘you need to lead the organization,’” Ms. Williams recounts.
More than 20 years later, she’s still at it, still serving as president of the Greater Sacramento NAACP and still advocating for people’s rights.
“We’re NAACP,” Ms. Williams said. “We understand the power those letters have, so when we, or any of our subject matter experts, walk into a room, whether it’s a room with an employer or a school or something to do with health access, we know that power.”
The work is plenty.
“When it’s blatant racial discrimination, we deal with it all, regardless of the industry it comes from. Whether it’s economics, education, environmental justice, racial profiling, or health care, we deal with it all,” she said.
She wants to do a better job of telling the NAACP’s story.
“Nobody knows that we do 3,300 cases and what they are. If we’re not doing anything in the media, then it appears that we are silent, but the reality is, we’re working our butts off. We have some wonderful heroes within the NAACP that have helped win some major fights. They do the research to help me go in front of whoever I need to go in front of, the DA or the sheriff.
They gather the information I need to go box,” she said.
The local branch recently joined forces with Sacramento Black Lives Matter to host a MLK Day caravan. Many considered the union to be historic as the two groups don’t typically align.
“It’s a matter of listening and respecting each other and just because we don’t do it that way doesn’t mean it is a wrong way to do it,” Ms. Williams said of different generations of activists.
Change needs “all the Black Lives Matters and all of their agitation,” she says.
“What happens with some of our elder generations is that they are looking at it all wrong. We didn’t get to where we are now by being nice all the time.
It was the young people who sat at the counters to push those racial boundaries. It wasn’t the elders sitting there, but at the end of the day when we came together, the policies and the change came through a lot of the work that the NAACP did. We need the agitation to happen in order to get the results we have.”
Locally, Ms. Williams has fought for children wrongly targeted in predominantly White school districts and she has helped get the wrongfully accused released from jail. Despite the work, some question the NAACP’s role and relevance.
“Regardless of what you say, at the end of the day, we’ve been in Sacramento since 1916,” Ms. Williams said.
“To still be dealing with the racial profiling, the negative images of African Americans and the lynching of Black men — they are not being lynched from a tree, but lynched in the system — and 105 years later to still be dealing with that, that’s something.”
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
The Sacramento OBSERVER introduces a special series, “Sistahs on the Frontlines,” acknowledging and highlighting the work that Black women are doing as “essential workers” on the frontlines, furthering the causes of the community. READ MORE