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For NAACP’s new leader, education is empowering

James Wilburn poses for a photo at Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane. Wilburn was elected in November to lead the Spokane NAACP chapter, replacing V. Anne Smith, who served as president for nine years. (Tyler Tjomsland)
James Wilburn poses for a photo at Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane. Wilburn was elected in November to lead the Spokane NAACP chapter, replacing V. Anne Smith, who served as president for nine years. (Tyler Tjomsland)

College didn’t work out  his first time around. So years ago, James Wilburn, inaugurated last weekend as the president of Spokane’s branch of the NAACP, got down to educating himself.

Born and raised in Arkansas – his first 12 years lived under the Jim Crow laws, with “colored-only” drinking fountains, restrooms and schools – he didn’t know many white people. He’d never been called the n-word as many times in all his previous years put together, he said, as he was that first year at Arkansas State University-Beebe. Suspended for fighting, he left after his first year.

His parents were crushed. But the experience led Wilburn to find out who he was, he said, in terms of his African-American roots.

“I wanted to find out why we were hated so much,” he said. “What did we do? And I knew that it was nothing that I had done, nothing my mom and dad had done.”

He knew about slavery. His question: Well, what were we before that?

“I began to read and read and read,” said Wilburn, now 60. “We were kings and queens. We built the first colleges and universities. … We charted the course of the stars. We were a great people. Slavery is just an episode in my history, in my past. It’s not who I am.”

As the organization’s first new leader in nine years, education is among Wilburn’s key priorities, he said recently in a corner booth at McDonald’s across Interstate 90 from Lewis and Clark High School. Back at LC, he works as an “achievement-gap intervention specialist,” trying to improve the graduation rate among racial-minority students.

Black students at LC – and throughout Spokane Public Schools – face a higher dropout rate than white students. In 2011, 78.8 percent of African-American students graduated on time, compared with 81.4 percent of LC students overall. Districtwide in 2011, 72.4 percent of African-American students graduated on time, compared with 76.7 percent of students overall. At LC and districtwide, those rates for black students represented significant improvements over 2010 – a 28 percentage-point improvement at LC, from 50.8 percent, although the rate for black students had fallen from 64.9 percent in 2009.

Wilburn’s own experiences, including the painful ones, serve him well now, he said – especially when it comes to helping struggling students.

Leaving the Memphis area behind in 2007, Wilburn followed his wife, Roberta Wilburn, to Spokane, where she’d been offered her “dream job” at Whitworth University. Now she’s associate dean of graduate studies in education.

He quickly looked for the NAACP. He’d been involved in the organization since the early 1980s, in 1988 receiving an NAACP image award after being elected mayor of Sunset, Ark. Between 1984 and 2001, Wilburn served 12 years divided into two stints at the helm of the city, 13 miles from Memphis and then home to about 3,000, he said. Under the sharecropper system after the end of slavery, Sunset was a place where old or injured black plantation workers lived out their days; it’s still a predominantly African-American city, though now with a much smaller population.

Among his initial impressions of Spokane’s NAACP, Wilburn said: “Not the participation you would think the nation’s oldest civil rights organization would have.”

He dug in, serving as the group’s education committee chairman. When V. Anne Smith, 78, decided to step down because of her declining health, he ran for president.

Wilburn has learned from experience, he said, not to focus on the old causes of old problems, such as lower-than-expected participation. A leader, he said, should “have a vision for yourself and understand where you are and how do we get where we’re going, as opposed to the past.”

However, he said, he’s found that African-Americans, “and in particular in this city,” often play it safe as a means of self-protection: “We don’t come together too much, because we don’t want to draw attention to us.”

History of activism

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, originally called the National Negro Committee, was founded in 1909 by a group of white and black activists in response to a race riot in Illinois. It’s fought many legal battles for civil rights for black Americans, including the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., which knocked down state laws establishing “separate but equal” public schools for black and white students.

Spokane’s chapter got its charter in 1919, the first activist organization in Eastern Washington, former president Smith said. Other civil rights groups were formed as social-justice issues began to surface, she said. “It’s always good to have help,” Smith said. “One organization can’t do it all by themselves.”

Smith said the most challenging part of her leadership was supporting a family in court after a cross-burning in their yard. She and other members answer calls from people who believe they’re not being represented fairly in courts. They meet with law enforcement and other organizations, providing input on issues such as the hiring of a police ombudsman.

Smith said NAACP membership has declined in the past few years, in phase with membership at other organizations. Young adults – the ones who aren’t joining – “have other interests,” she said. “But eventually they do come around. I think they become of aware of issues and how it affects their lives in the community. Not only racism, but economically, educationally – those things matter.”

Smith said Wilburn’s experiences – he served as a city council member as well as mayor before moving to Spokane – will benefit the organization. In 2005, he earned a bachelor’s degree in humanities at LeMoyne-Owen College, a historically black college in Memphis. In 2010, he received a master’s degree in education from Whitworth University.

Wilburn will speak at next week’s Martin Luther King Jr. Unity March downtown and other events on the holiday honoring the civil rights leader. Always recruiting, he carries NAACP membership forms with him. He appeals to African-Americans and others, he said, noting the group’s multiracial origins.

Said Smith: “He’s coming in on the shoulders of Jim Chase and Carl Maxey,” the mayor and the city’s first prominent African-American attorney, both previous NAACP presidents. “He’ll do great things.”

Education and roots

The vision Wilburn has laid out for the NAACP is ambitious: “To eradicate injustice, anywhere, under any circumstances.”

For him, and others in the organization, it all comes back to education.

“What we’re dealing with is the dropout rate for people of color, including the Hispanics and Native Americans, African-Americans,” said the Rev. Happy Watkins, pastor at New Hope Baptist Church and one of the chapter’s vice presidents. “There’s a need to find out why and see if we can remedy the situation.”

A short bookcase in Wilburn’s small office at LC holds “Great Speeches by African Americans” and half a shelf of other titles for students researching black history. Coffee-making supplies dominate the rest – Wilburn extends an open invitation to parents, along with students, to stop by to chat.

He’s assigned a caseload of 50 African-American students whose low grades, poor attendance or behavioral problems signal to school administrators that they’re at risk of dropping out. He checks in with them regularly, listens to them, and provides an alternate space for them to complete their schoolwork, under his supervision. Before moving to Spokane, Wilburn worked as an in-school suspension supervisor at a high school in Memphis.

“He is a staff member of color, which our schools need more and more of,” LC Principal Shawn Jordan said. “… There’s a connection for our students, inside their school, to an adult from their community.”

But Wilburn said he talks to anybody who wants to talk to him. That includes as many white students as black ones, he said. “They see the relationship that I have with certain students, and they want to be a part of that,” Wilburn said.

Some students tell him about problems outside school that affect their performance in school. “I help them deal with that, so they can focus academically on the reason that they’re here. I’ve found a lot of students can’t seem to separate what’s going on in their lives from what’s required of them here at Lewis and Clark,” Wilburn said.

He also helped organize a Black Student Union at the school and works with teachers and administrators to promote cultural awareness, he said. Last week, he was working with students to organize school events honoring Martin Luther King Jr. He arranges lunchtime mentoring meetings between black men who are leaders in the Spokane area and black male students.

Wilburn is a “kid magnet,” Jordan said. Even as an intern at the school, before being hired full-time, he forged strong connections with students that allowed him to serve as a motivating influence.

Among African-American students, “It was my sense that they felt like he was somebody they could go talk to,” Jordan said.

Success in school is key to getting a job after school – or even better, starting a small business in your neighborhood and hiring the people who live there, Wilburn said.

“For kids who drop out of school, there’s a straight line from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse,” he said. “We have to help them realize that your not having an education limits your ability to earn a living, creates gangs – because you’re going to have to have a social structure somewhere.”

He calls on parents, as well as educators, to help students succeed.

Despite his difficulty as an 18-year-old college student, Wilburn said he had one thing going for him: He knew who his grandparents were, his great-grandparents, and he knew “that whatever I did would bring shame to my family.”

Now, he said, he has students who tell him, “ ‘If I ever see my daddy, I’ll kill him.’ ”

It’s up to parents to empower children through their roots, he said.

“There might not be a whole bunch to brag about in your family, but there’s something that made it possible for them to be there,” Wilburn said. “We have to give them that then. ‘You know, your grandfather used to drive the transit, and he did that for 25 years. He got up every day, I saw him go to work.’ You have to instill that in them, that there was somebody in their family that was committed to something that these kids can hang their hat on and say, ‘Well, I can do it, too.’ ”