A 58-year-old minister has been elected to take over as the new president of the Kansas City branch of the NAACP, replacing longtime civil rights leader Anita Russell.
The Rev. Rodney E. Williams, who previously served as a vice president of the branch, took over the branch’s leadership earlier this month.
Williams has been pastor of the Swope Parkway United Christian Church since November 2010 and has a long history of involvement in civil rights issues.
Russell, who was elected branch president in 2000, said it was time for new leadership of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“It has been 16 years, and that is a long time,” Russell said. “As long as there was someone that I felt would be a great leader for the association and if they were available and willing, then this was the time. Rev. Williams will be great leader.”
Russell said she would continue to serve as a vice president for the local branch as well as a member of the NAACP national board of directors.
Williams said he has a deep appreciation of the Kansas City branch’s long history of social and political activism.
“I cannot replace Ms. Anita Russell; she is not replaceable,” he said. “I am humbled to have been elected to this position. I see the presidency of the local branch as one that is rich in tradition and heritage in fighting for justice not for a certain group of people but for all people. I am in a position to carry out that tradition and to try to make a difference in Kansas City in the area of social justice.”
Williams said among his immediate goals was to raise the public’s awareness of the Kansas City branch’s ongoing work as well as to expand the group’s membership to attract younger members and to retain longtime members.
“We must do whatever we can to fight racial discrimination, not just to be reactive but to be proactive,” he said.
Born and raised in the Bronx in New York City, Williams earned his undergraduate degree in business administration from Elizabeth City State University. He received a master’s degree in divinity from the Virginia Union University School of Theology. Williams obtained a doctorate in ministry from the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.
It is the same school where Martin Luther King Jr. received his doctorate in divinity.
“I like to say that,” Williams joked.
Russell said Williams’ speaking style, mannerisms and thought-provoking messages reminded her of the slain civil rights leader.
Williams’ involvement in the NAACP dates to when he was 8 and his grandfather bought him a youth life membership. Williams said his grandfather was a grass-roots civil rights leader in North Carolina.
“From the time when I was 6 or 7 years old, that was preached in my house, so (not) being a member of the NAACP really was not an option,” he said.
Other community leaders said they were pleased that Williams will lead the local NAACP branch.
“Dr. Williams is an able and committed leader,” said the Rev. Vernon P. Howard Jr., pastor of St. Mark Union Church and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City. “He will do well. We need his fiery and fearless brand of leadership in this very urgent season when our gains and causes are under attack.”
Organized in 1913, the Kansas City branch leaders said it has the largest membership in a 10-state area that includes Missouri.
Locally, the branch has forged memorandums of understanding with the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the Raytown Police Department and various area school districts on issues affecting minority discrimination.
In 2010, the Kansas City branch hosted the NAACP national convention that featured first lady Michelle Obama as one of the keynote speakers.
“More than anyone I know, Rev. Williams embodies the scripture of Micah 6:8, ‘... and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God,’ ” said Lora McDonald, executive director of More2, the Metropolitan Organization for Racial and Economic Equity.
“We have long worked with past president Anita Russell, who served NAACP very well, and we are excited about the leadership of Rev. Williams,” McDonald said.