PAST ... PRESIDENT ... FUTURE for NCAAP's New Leader James Wilburn, Education Is Empowering - Especially History

By Rogers, Adrian | The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), January 13, 2013 | Go to article overview

PAST ... PRESIDENT ... FUTURE for NCAAP's New Leader James Wilburn, Education Is Empowering - Especially History


Rogers, Adrian, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA)


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. …

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