An outrage ignited by comments made during a May 13 Sussex County Council meeting boiled over a week later to fill council chambers with NAACP supporters.
Sussex County councilmen Sam Wilson and Vance Phillips came under fire from NAACP members and others during the May 20 meeting. Reaction was strong to comments made by Wilson and Phillips during and after the May 13 meeting regarding a $500 councilmanic grant to the Lower Sussex NAACP Youth Council. Representatives of several groups demanded an apology.
During last week's meeting, Wilson, R-Georgetown, said he did not know what NAACP stood for. “I’m not giving anything unless you describe what that says. What does NAACP stand for?” Wilson asked. “I don’t understand. We are voting for something we don’t know what it stands for. It sounds like discrimination to me."
While Phillips, R-Laurel, voted for the grant, he said the organization was directed at one race. "It strikes me as inappropriate in this day of racial equality," he said.
Hovington: Action is an embarrassment
Lower Sussex NAACP President Jane Hovington said Wilson and Phillips were out of touch with the people they represent. "You chose to make a mockery of one of the greatest organizations in the United States," she said.
“I feel that these two councilmen owe the NAACP and the people of Sussex County an apology for the untruths they have put in the paper and on the television regarding an organization that is far from discriminatory, and for the embarrassment they have caused those who live here,” Hovington said.
She called their action an embarrassment to the county. “I say this because you have given grants to other cultural organizations without question. You thought your buffoonery would be laughed off as just jokes.
“The sadness of this is that there are small-minded people who agree with you. These people who know nothing about the coloreds and other minorities, or the degradation they have suffered or the inroads they have made which has benefited all people, nor of the discriminatory practices that we face today.”
Hovington told Phillips it was time for him to step outside council chambers and spend some time with his minority constituents.
“So when you say, we are hung up on our color, realize, that we as African American, know that we will be African Americans until we die. Our skin color is the first that anyone sees, but it does not define us,” she said. “ If asked how I want you to refer to me; I want you to see me first as a woman, a woman proud of her heritage of being a colored Negro who became a black African American. As a woman, intelligent and strong determined to survive in this unjust world.”
Hovington said she still bares the scars of the racism she has experienced and witnessed in her lifetime.
NAACP refuses grant money
Richard Smith, president of the Delaware NAACP, said on principle the group would not accept the grant. “I will take it out of my own pocket if need be,” he said after the meeting.
Smith looked at Wilson and Phillips and told them they were wrong. "If you want this fight, we will bring it to you. We can bring 100,000 people down here," he said. "I remember your type; you hate us for no reason at all."
“I'm trying to understand why you came out of your mind to say the things you said. It's either racist or hate, what is it?” Smith asked Wilson.
Jea Street, a New Castle County councilman and former president of the Delaware Black Caucus, said the comments were a sad, painful reminder of the past. “Your statements remind me that nothing has changed,” he told Wilson and Phillips.
He said he understands the two can express their views. “But there is no place for intolerance in public service,” he said, adding he felt sorry for the councilmen.
Harold Truxon, who has appeared before council many times as president of the Ellendale Civic Association, said he was caught off guard by the comments. “It hurt me that you two would not support the kids. I thought something like this would never happen in this council,” he said.
Lisa Goodman, president of Equality Delaware, said Wilson's and Phillip's comments send a message that government does not value all people. Goodman, who is gay, reminded Wilson that he told her that she was going to hell when they met during testimony on the civil union bill in the Delaware General Assembly. "I'm not there yet," she said.
NAACP members and supporters gathered to pray prior to the meeting on The Circle outside council chambers.
Wilson, Phillips: No apology necessary
After the meeting, Wilson and Phillips said they would not back down from their previous comments. "I certainly stand by everything I said," Phillips said. “I don't discriminate; I embrace all of God's children.”
While he said he would not apologize to the NAACP, Phillips issued an invitation to Smith to visit him at his Laurel farm. “Equally, I will be happy to join Mr. Smith in the communities he represents for my own edification,” Phillips said.
“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,” Phillips said.
“He seems like a gentleman who has been through some experiences that I would enjoy learning from. And at the same time, I think his eyes might be opened a little bit as to my walk of faith and love,” Phillips said.
"When you start asking questions, you get in trouble," Wilson said, adding that he's not a racist.
"Making judgements of people you don't know is evil. As a Christian, how can I have hate?" he asked.
"Why would I say one race is better than another?” Wilson asked. “I've given Jane [Hovington] tons of money through our discretionary funds. I've given the same group money but the money stayed in Sussex," Wilson said.
Wilson contends the NAACP would have used the grant money to send youth to a convention in Las Vegas.
"I wasn't surprised they had three homosexuals here to support them, but the majority of people don't live that way," Wilson said.
In addition, Wilson said, he did not tell Goodman that she was going to hell. “I told her if she didn't change her ways, God says she would go to hell. It's not Sam Wilson saying this,” Wilson said.
“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,” Phillips said. “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.”