A conversation with WENDELL WILLIAMS
What is your official title in the community?
I don’t have a title. I try to do what I can do to help people.
We just celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and the MLK parade and banquet that you created and founded. How many years has the parade been in existence?
This was the 28th year.
Why did you feel it was necessary to have a Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Las Vegas?
Well, when I moved here from the South, there was no mention of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. The only thing that would take place was KVOV radio station would ask people to turn on their headlights of their cars. That was about it. It was rare to have no mention of Dr. King’s birthday in the south where I grew up. Actually, the parade was (inspired by) a basketball tournament we were planning during the MLK holiday at Doolittle Community Center. We called it the Martin Luther King Tournament. At the time, in the back of the community center, the Las Vegas Westernettes drill team practiced and we invited them to kick off the basketball tournament with a performance. They agreed, and then as time passed we were asked about what else could be done with the drill team and performing. That is how the MLK parade was created.
What year was that?
The year was 1981, and at the time I knew nothing about parades. The first MLK Parade only had 13 entries. Now, 28 years later, we are known (as) the largest parade in the state. We limit entries now to 150. We used to have more then 300 entries, but it was too long.
How was this year’s MLK Parade?
It was raining and the viewing audience was smaller — but amazingly, not one of the parade participants pulled out. They called me every day asking if the parade was still going to happen because of the bad weather. My response is always the same: If Dr. King could march in the rain and have rocks thrown at him, then we can have a parade in the rain in his honor.
What happens with the proceeds from the MLK parade and the MLK banquet?
The MLK parade does not generate any proceeds. For the last three years we have had sponsors to cover the necessary expenses. We, the Martin Luther King Jr. Committee, don’t look at the parade as a fundraiser. We look at the MLK Banquet as a fundraiser for scholarships. Our MLK Banquet has given scholarships for 25 years. We give a student one four-year scholarship, as well as single parents. This year, Harrah’s Entertainment, Macy’s and Goshen were sponsors of the MLK parade.
What is Goshen and what is your position with the organization?
I am the regional director for Clark County of Goshen … a community development coalition among 12 other ones in the state. Goshen is the largest coalition and the only African-American-led coalition in Nevada. Led by Belinda Thompson, we are in Clark County and five other counties in Nevada and we fund 52 agencies statewide.
What are some of those agencies?
We fund 100 Black Men, Clark County School District, we just went into an agreement with Metro, and we just signed an agreement with the City of Mesquite and Richard Steele Boxing Gym. We fund Charles I. West Middle School and a training center at Wendell P. Williams Elementary School, just to mention a few of the agencies.
What is Goshen’s overall objective?
The objective is to build a coalition of agencies statewide to address the needs of the community and improve life for families. We are not trying to expand our coalition; we are trying to expand the agencies we fund and enhance what they are trying to do. We have been very successful because we started with only a $5,000 grant and now we are a multi-million dollar agency. I used to be a volunteer at Goshen a few years ago. It was identified that Goshen had no government relations arm and my 18 years in the legislature, along with my political contacts, has allowed us to expand the agency further.
How do you see the progress of Las Vegas’ black community?
We have a new challenge with the black community, because we live all over Nevada now — and that is a great thing. The challenge of our current leadership is to organize African-Americans throughout the valley. I am hopeful, and watching the young people at our recent MLK banquet give tremendous speeches lets me know we will be fine.
What is really being done for the community in light of the economic plight — with foreclosures, unemployment and education?
I don’t think we are holding the current leadership accountable. Nothing against anyone, but it is a different time because they came from a different time. Those of us who served in elected office in the ’60s — watching the civil rights movement unfold in front of our faces — view politics a little differently. This is because we lived it. It is different mindset now. It doesn’t seem there are many people taking on the hard issues.
Is there complacency?
During the time of Dr. McMillan (first black dentist in Nevada), Labertha Johnson (first black nurse in Nevada), Dr. Bob Bailey (first black television broadcaster), Dr. Charles I. West (first black doctor in Nevada) and Charles Kellar (first black attorney in Nevada), there were greater challenges and the consequences where greater. They were going into waters that had never been chartered. They had the nerve, the zest and the boldness to make a positive change. If they could do it then, we can certainly do it now.
How do you see the future of the West Side of Las Vegas, which is still considered the hub of the African-American community?
I think there will be a population shift to become more Latino. I was at Kermit R. Booker Elementary School last year and the student population was 50 percent African-American and 50 percent Latino. Now, it is 52 percent Latino and 48 percent African-American children. I really like the idea of an African-American community. I grew up in a segregated black community and in segregated schools. I never had a non-African-American teacher. I don’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing, but it was a different type of teaching and caring.
How do you feel about the lack of a diversified economy in Las Vegas, with everything dependent on gaming?
To not have a diversified economy makes the state suffer. Even with the policies we have in place that could promote businesses and employment — our representatives are not pushing those things. I have people calling me every day, asking, “What is happening with your bill that deals with an employment plan for businesses located in the Enterprise community?” This bill has been on the books since 1989 and the city and Clark County does not enact it. Also, we are not forcing them to enact it.
Do you plan to get back into politics?
I don’t see myself running for office, but I will be involved in some way. I enjoy what I do at Goshen and it is the best job that I have ever had. Primarily, I can use my life experiences and the things I have learned and apply them to what I do. I can see on a daily basis how the Goshen agency is positively changing people’s lives. I also love the fact that an African-American female (Thompson) started it with only a $5,000 grant and now the Obama administration and the State of Nevada look to Goshen to build coalitions in Nevada. For example, (the organization) has tested more African-Americans for HIV virus in Nevada in the last five months than the state has done in five years. We are changing how we do things in Nevada.