James H. Gilliam, Sr. was a civil rights leader, war hero, community activist and mentor to many here in Delaware.
As news of the 95-year-old’s death spread, Delawareans up and down the state expressed their condolences and chimed in with their memories of the straight-talking Gilliam.
“The death of Jim Gilliam is an incredible loss for our state and my heart goes out to the entire Gilliam family,” said Gov. Jack Markell, D-Delaware, in a statement. “Jim led a tremendous life of service and his advocacy in our community has positively impacted so many Delawareans.”
Wilmington City Council Member Darius Brown first met Gilliam when Brown was 19-years-old through the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, which Gilliam founded. The rep from Wilmington’s third district affectionately referred to his mentor as, “Mr. G.,” as many who knew him did.
“I firmly believe that Mr. G lived a full life, not just because of his age, but because of all that he accomplished and the individuals and lives that he impacted,” Brown said. “There’s not an African American attorney, or CEO, or elected official or anything that I can think of that has not come in contact with Mr. G and Mr. G not being instrumental in their success.”
Gilliam checked in with Brown often, letting him know which city initiatives he felt worked and which fell short. Brown said no matter what the subject, Gilliam’s unfiltered feedback was always others-centered. “It was all looking at how we could improve the lives of individuals and what policies we could put in place to do that. That was really his drive.”
“Standing as a pillar of strength and social consciousness within the local community, he advocated for equal opportunity and dedicated his life to erasing those disparities which kept us divided,” Wilmington Mayor Dennis Williams said in a statement. “He has stood as a remarkable example of selflessness, charity and humility and he will be greatly missed by all.”
Gilliam was a decorated U.S. Army veteran. He fought in World War II and the Korean War, earning several medals, including the Bronze Star.
Gilliam also served as the first director of New Castle County’s Community Development and Housing Division. He championed causes like fair housing opportunities and helped form a county diversity commission. Back then, Gilliam worked alongside Sen. Chris Coons, who was county executive at the time.
“What I’ll always remember about Mr. G was his unyielding passion for making our community a better place,” said Coons, D-Delaware. “Just as impactful as his own work, though, was his relentless advocacy on behalf of our state and families in need with business leaders, community leaders, and public officials alike.”
“Delaware is a better place because he was in it, and the best way we can honor his memory is to live by our better conscience, like he encouraged me and so many to do,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware. “He learned from his experiences with segregation and devoted his life to truly making a difference in uniting Delaware.”
“Mr. Gilliam was one of our state’s most prominent leaders who fought tirelessly for social justice,” said Congressman John Carney, D-Delaware. “He gave voice to the voiceless and created opportunities for generations of Delawareans to come.”
Attorney General Matt Denn said via Twitter, “We lost a great Delawarean today. Jim Gilliam was an uncompromising force for equal rights and opportunity.”
Late Thursday Vice President Joe Biden echoed those sentiments. He remembers when he first met Gilliam during a turbulent period in the late 60’s in the city of Wilmington.
“I had the great honor of meeting Jim in 1968 when our city was in flames. Wilmington was occupied, and I was a recent law school graduate who saw Jim as a clarion voice for justice and one of great civil rights leaders of my generation,” the Vice President wrote. He went on to add, “He was my friend. He was my mentor. He was a man I looked up to. And our community owes him so much.”
Delaware state Senate Democrats also tweeted, “Mourning the loss of war hero and activist #JimGilliam. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and all who he touched.”
“Jim was a hero – not just because of his actions during times of war, but because of his tireless efforts at home, in his community,” Markell wrote. “His legacy is one of service, but also of grit, self-sacrifice and an unending determination to seek equality and justice for all. He will be truly missed.”