By Aswad Walker
Robert Williams, the organizer behind Pearland’s recent successful Juneteenth event, now has his sights set on a larger prize that goes beyond a one-day celebration. He’s now looking to facilitate the collaboration between Black business leaders, organizations, elected official and others, to create a movement dedicated to meeting the needs of Black people, including but not limited to, maximizing Black voting power.
The Defender recently spoke with Williams about the invite-only meeting that will be held this Sunday.
DEFENDER: What’s the overall aim and purpose of the Black Leaders Collective?
ROBERT WILLIAMS: We had a very successful Juneteenth event, and the excitement that was generated with that has caused us to take this thing a little bit further. So, we will now be having our initial meeting with the Black Leaders Collective here in Pearland. At that Juneteenth event, that was probably one of the largest gatherings of Black people in one spot in the history of Pearland. It was fantastic. We had over 50 vendors there. We had great entertainment, great information. That being said, it was only about 200 people. And so therein lies the need for this interconnect, if you will, up in Pearland amongst our people. Even though I live in southern Brazoria County, I’ve been working in the Pearland area trying to create this interconnect for a number of years. And the one thing that we found out is that the majority of our people that are moving in from Harris County to Pearland are less concerned about social justice and political issues as they are people that are business and entrepreneurial-minded. So, we’re meeting them where they are.
And the Black Leaders Collective is actually an organization that was initially started in Austin, Texas, with Sharonda Robinson and Terry Mitchell. Sharonda Robinson is actually coming down from Austin, by the way, to help us in this meeting. And it is basically a collective of nonprofits, business owners, elected officials, those involved in arts and the roads, all Black, who are coming together to create this interconnect, if you will, that has been lacking so long in Pearland. I guarantee you that out of the 50 vendors that we had there, most of them did not know about the other businesses there in Pearland. So, that’s what we’re trying to do, is to create that interconnect. There’s a lot of excitement about this meeting Sunday.
DEFENDER: What do you hope to get out of this inaugural meeting?
WILLIAMS: I’m a visionary. Visionaries rarely get to see their visions come forward. But my hope is a consolidated voice which leads to consolidated power, which we are lacking in. I’ve worked in the Democratic Party, former vice chair of the party here in Brazoria County. I’ve been working in party for about 30 years. I’ve lobbied in the Capitol. One thing that I found out is that this Democratic Party will promise us in secret and do nothing in public. And if we are ever to get our issues and our concerns met, it’s going to have to be through this vein of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., of this consolidated voice. I tell people all the time that it wasn’t President Johnson that wrote the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of ’64 and ’65, it was the voice of Black people that wrote that legislation. So, in the same vein we’re going to be trying to continue to ride this wave.
And what I mean by writing that wave is, if you speak with Cliff Albright, who is the president/founder of Black Voters Matter, he tells the story of how they all came to be in. And it was actually from a devastating loss they had in Georgia in 2014 where they had high expectations. But it was out of that loss that people were inspired to do more. Stacey Abrams comes on the scene. They put the Stacey Abrams plan together. They’re still riding the wave of this loss, if you will. And even though she was unsuccessful in her first bid as governor, they did end up dragging Senator Warnock across the finish line because of that wave they were riding. You can’t make a wave. You just have to take advantage of it when you’re there. And so that’s what we’re doing now, is trying to take advantage of the energy of the excitement, the Black love, the Black fellowship that was created at this Juneteenth event, and move it forward. And move forward with something that’s sustainable over the next seven generations.
This won’t be an organization that we start Sunday and you start seeing all of these immediate results. We are going to have to build. People are going to have to have trust in what we’re doing, and believe in what we’re doing. We have to put the right people in place, build slowly, but build surely. My hope is that we will eventually see that consolidated voice that now is able to put people in positions of power in the northern part of Pearland, and to city council, on the school boards and to other elected positions there where we are now at the table, making decisions for the issues that affect us most.
DEFENDER: Fill in the blank. The greatest challenge facing Black people in 2022 is what?
WILLIAMS: Us <laughs>. It really is. One thing that the Black Leaders Collective is doing in Austin, Texas now is that they have regular discussions around internalized racism. A lot of people don’t even know what that is. And a lot of people don’t even know that they have it. But when you walk around in the system of oppression for 400 years, it’s in all of us. We are our own worst enemy to an effect.
I’ll give you a good example. This Sunday, my church celebrated the unveiling of a historical marker there in our church, 155 years; The St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church. After the service, we all went outside, surrounded the marker. The lady at the church that was in charge had the pastor to come out first. She stopped the deacons, and there was this group of white people, about eight of them, that were on the Brazoria County Historical Commission, that she led out with the pastors to put around this historical marker, instead of the people that were responsible for this church still being there. We had people in that audience over 90 years old, that are descendants of those who actually built this church. Those are the people who we should be celebrating, but we have that oppressive spirit inside of us that makes us feel we still have to say, “Yessuh, massa. You get up here first.” So, the biggest challenge is us.
And as a matter of fact, I’ve invited a couple of individuals and organizations to this meeting—and it’s an invite only meeting—who are very influential, but who actually have differences, one with the other. And I’ve done that intentionally. Their differences are not on how we proceed with the advancement of Black people and their differences are not on the need to address the cause of which we fight for. It’s penny-ante sh*t that happened two or three years ago that they’re still fighting over. So, to be honest, I have no idea what’s going to happen. I don’t know if one’s going to walk in and see the other and say, “Well, I’m walking out,” but there is not enough of us to be separated. So, here’s the first step. We’re going to start, and we’re going to start talking about our people in all different aspects of our community, so that we are all supporting one to the other. And when that time comes, when there is a need for that consolidated Black voice, at one click of the computer, we’ve got everybody’s attention.
DEFENDER: Fill in the blank. The greatest opportunity facing Black people in 2022 is what?
WILLIAMS: Us <laugh>. It is. Listen, 20 years ago Pearland was a pasture, really. And then it hit this huge growth population explosion and became one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Right now, there are 25,000 African Americans in Pearland. 25,000! That’s enough to tip any election. And I’ll give you another example. The African American votes that were left on the ground were enough to put Beto in office when he ran for the Senate. When I look across the state at the 254 counties that we have here, those numbers are generally the same.
When I speak to a lot of the county chairs, a lot of them feel pretty good about getting out between 55% and 60% of the African American vote. And 60% sounds pretty good. That’s kind of like in there with the national average. But when you look at those who are unregistered and those votes that are just laying on the ground, then you are really talking about voting 17% to 20% of your strength. So, 80% of your voting strength is left on the ground. So, our greatest asset is us. All we have to do is consolidate, put it together, and then the words of Mr. Brown when he said, “We should never be permanent enemies nor friends with either party. We have permanent interest.” That’s what we are trying to build towards.
DEFENDER: Who are the leaders and organizations from the past that you most admire and pattern yourself and Black Leaders Collective after?
WILLIAMS: In the past, it would definitely be, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And I know we try to paint him with this Santa Claus image of being this nice, little guy running around. But he was as radical as they come. And, one of his greatest sayings was, “True peace is not simply the absence of controversy, but it is instead the infusion of justice.” In other words, we have to make our own peace. I’ve taken those words with me along this battle of being a community organizer and activist and working within the party, understanding that power concedes nothing; that we must demand our own, and stand in the gap for the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and continue to build up this power within ourself.
And when I say disenfranchised and marginalized, a lot of people like to look at the African American electorate and think that we’re all in that. No, we’re not. We have great leaders. As a matter of fact, when they pulled us off the shores of Africa, we weren’t just sitting there on the shore, homeless, waiting for somebody to get us. We had kings and queens there, and they are still here today. So, changing the narrative of who we are, and the perception of who we are, through the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been an inspiration for me for years.
DEFENDER: And because this is a invite only meeting, how can the larger community that’s not invited support this effort, and why should they support this effort?
WILLIAMS: <laughs> Stay tuned. I’ve done a lot of organizing in the past. And I found out that in your initial organizing, you can’t start off with 400 or 500 people, or you going to get 400 or 500 different opinions on how to do this, that, and the other. One of our goals of this meeting is to establish a steering committee, moving forward, onto how we will further address building the Black Leaders Collective. That time will come when we are reaching out to the entirety of our African American electorate up there in Pearland, through different events, through banquets, through all kind of things. But, yes, the goal is as I said, to create this interconnect. And we can only do that through connecting with the entirety of the African American community out there. But we’re starting small and building large.