Organizers: Williams counter-endorsement event in Northwest Philly not about racial politics

 Event organizer William Miller is flanked by former elected officials John Myers, Donna Reed Miller, George Burrell and Leanna Washington at Thursday's Tony Williams endorsement gathering. (Brian Hickey/WHYY)

Event organizer William Miller is flanked by former elected officials John Myers, Donna Reed Miller, George Burrell and Leanna Washington at Thursday's Tony Williams endorsement gathering. (Brian Hickey/WHYY)

They said a recent endorsement of Jim Kenney by several Northwest Philadelphia elected officials in West Oak Lane offended them.

So, neighborhood activists, former legislators and residents gathered seven blocks away to “set the record straight” in support of mayoral candidate Tony Williams on Thursday. 

Though organizers said the endorsement event was not driven by racial politics — pre-emptively blaming media for possibly portraying it as such — several speakers mentioned topics of race to a crowd of which Williams was not a part.

Race and attention

A release distributed at the event, which was held across the street from Mt. Airy Church of God, stated that the group of citizens came together from Germantown, Mt. Airy and West Oak Lane after “Northwest elected officials endorsed the non-African American candidate for mayor.”

Fired up by an article in the Daily News headlined “Is Kenney the future voice of black Philadelphia?,” one who referred to Mummers in “blackface” and South Philadelphia gentrification while another noted that “it’s not ‘yes, massa’ time.”

William R. Miller IV, a longtime community activist who headed the effort, was asked about that perceived messaging conflict.

He told NinetyNine the event was actually designed to give voice to a community that often does not have one. They were using this as an opportunity to declare that the officials who endorsed Kenney were not speaking for Northwest Philadelphia, but for themselves.

“Let’s not get bogged down in petty personal agendas. Petty personal agendas. Petty personal agendas,” said Miller moments before an attendee who “drank from a colored water fountain” thanked him for this effort. “We the people decided to come out and speak for ourselves.”

Speaking in support

Among the guest speakers was former state Rep. John Myers.

“We’re here to say we want to continue the independent progressive movement as it started for us 50 years ago,” he said, “and the only way to do that is support those that are culturally, socially, politically and economically on the path that we’re on, and not for South Philly.”

Myers said he didn’t think much has changed for a community that’s been “disenfranchised for 400 years,” using the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” mantra as evidence.

Other speakers included former City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller; Ryan Boyer and Willie Brown, respectively representing the Laborers District Council and Transport Workers Union Local 234 which had previously endorsed Williams.

Not speaking, but being introduced as part of the endorsement team, was LeAnna Washington, a former state senator who gave up her seat and pleaded guilty last October to violating state laws.

George Burrell, the former city councilman and top aide to former Mayor John Street who recently made headlines with comments about racial politics, delivered a nearly seven-minute speech on the importance of this campaign.

You can see the entire address via this link, but here’s a portion of Burrell’s statement during which he had to pause and laughingly edit a portion out.

“It is both surprising and disappointing that a group of respected African American elected officials who are elected essentially by African American voters to represent and protect their interests, who themselves have no history of partnership or working relationships with candidate Kenney on the core issues that are important to their constituents, and who hold office because of the work and the support of many of us who are here today and on the memories and foundations by great leaders of the past like [late state Rep.] Dave Richardson, [late state Sen.] Roxanne Jones, [late City Councilwoman] Gussie Clark, [late U.S. Rep.] Bill Gray [who] as I’ve said recently would be rolling over in their graves and are rolling over in their graves at the notion that respected African American elected officials who essentially represent an African American constituency would turn over the mayor’s office voluntarily to a community other than our own.”

Williams’ reaction

Via campaign spokesman Al Butler, Williams shared his thoughts on the endorsement.

“We appreciate the support and endorsement of longstanding leaders of the Northwest neighborhoods. This campaign is not about one personality, but about a vision for one Philadelphia.

“I am carrying a vision that represents a collective will and what we see today in the Northwest is a community that takes ownership of their city and the destiny of their neighborhood. They are making a choice about which vision they believe is best suited for the city they want to have.

“The Northwest is a part of the city that has a consistent and valuable voting tradition and we are certainly grateful to have the support of community leaders who have been part of that effort for decades – with us … together with other neighborhoods from Manayunk to Mayfair … from Point Breeze to North Philly. We need support from every area of the city to win and we have been working hard and getting it.

“Especially gratifying is the support of people who have been part of the movement to empower citizens, particularly African Americans in Philadelphia, for more than 40 years.

“My father was known as the Dean of Black Independent Politics. He, together with people like Bill Gray, Dave Richardson, Charlie Bowser, Gussie Clark, Ona Weldon were pioneers. But not just for black people, they broke the mold and created a model for all people: women, the LGBT community and Americans of all ethnicities—to have a place at the table and share of power for the good of every neighborhood in the city. They were the original proponents of the One Philadelphia concept that I champion today.”

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