Citizens voice dismay over county councilmen’s comments

Earlier this week, more than half-dozen citizens spoke to the Sussex County Council, voicing their displeasure over the comments made last week by Councilmen Vance Phillips and Sam Wilson regarding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

At the May 13 meeting, the council had heard a grant request from the NAACP for financial support for their 2014 activities, which included a financial freedom workshop and a family physical fitness challenge. The grant did not request a specific amount of money; however, County staff noted that, in 2013, $500 had been awarded to the organization — $100 from each councilperson’s councilmanic account.

“Take my name off. I’m not going to give anything,” Councilman Sam Wilson had said on May 13. “Unless you describe what that says — what does NAACP stand for?”

Following the council being informed as to what “NAACP” stands for, Wilson appeared to be put off by the term “colored.” Councilman Vance Phillips, too, said that he would not support the grant request.

“I’m with Mr. Wilson,” he said. “This is an organization that obviously is directed at a certain race. It strikes me as inappropriate in this day of racial equality. I’ll pull mine from that, as well.”

Councilpersons George Cole, Michael Vincent and Joan Deaver then stated they would fund $500 to the organization, with an equal amount paid from each of their three accounts.

Following the meeting, the Delaware NAACP released a statement responding to the grant refusal, noting that the organization does “not tolerate racism and bigotry in any way, shape or form” and calling Wilson’s and Phillips’ comments “misguided.”

At the May 20 council meeting, many NAACP members and supporters sat in the audience, and some even spoke to the council.

Jane Hovington, president of the Lower Sussex Chapter of the NAACP, stated that the two councilmen had chosen “to make a mockery of one of the greatest organizations in the United States.”

“You thought your buffoonery would be laughed off,” she said. “You were elected to represent all of the people in your district… I feel these two councilmen owe an apology, not just to the NAACP, but to the people of Sussex County.”

Lisa Goodman, president of Equality Delaware, stated that what Wilson and Phillips had done sent a bad message to their constituents.

“Not to fund a modest grant request sends a horribly exclusionary message to your constituents. They feel that you, their government, does not respect or value them. To them, I say, ‘You are worthy of equal treatment and respect…’

“Mr. Wilson, the last time you and I were together was on the floor of the Delaware State Senate during the debate of the civil-union bill. On that day, you told me that it was your opinion that I was certainly going to Hell.

“I’m pleased to say, ‘Not yet.’ Until and if that day comes, I will stand as the president of Equality Delaware, proudly, with organization like the NAACP and against inequality directed against any group of citizens, including those in Sussex County. There is no place for intolerance in public service… I feel sorry for you.”

Ellendale resident Harold Truxon said that he was very surprised by Phillips’ and Wilson’s refusals to fund the grant, as he knows the two men.

“It kind of hurt me. I hope these two gentlemen will apologize or come up with something… I didn’t ever think this would happen in this council.”

Richard Smith, president of the NAACP’s Delaware State Conference, told Phillips and Wilson their actions were wrong.

“If you want this fight, we can bring this fight to you. We can bring 100,000 people down here… We can do a lot. You have to realize you’re in the 21st century,” he said. “I’ve been in the civil rights movement since 1965 — I’m 65 years old. I remember your type. You hate us for no reason at all.”

During the May 20 meeting, the council remained quiet; however, later that day, Phillips released a statement noting that he wished to clarify his statement with regards to “apologies” regarding his comments on the NAACP.

“Just as I wouldn’t offer an apology for anything I said last week and most likely Mr. Richard Smith will not offer an apology for using hateful words to describe me, I believe this occasion offers us an opportunity,” he said. “I repeat my sincere offer to Mr. Smith to come to my farm to break bread and foster understanding. Equally, I will be happy to join Mr. Smith in the communities he represents, for my own edification.

“I love all people. It is the foundation of my Christian faith, and I believe it is of most of the people who spoke on the NAACP issue today. It saddens me when words are used to foster hate and division. I pray Mr. Smith will accept my offer and that we may transform this moment of racial friction into a starting point for understanding and, hopefully, racial harmony.”