It was at 10,000 feet on a blistery spring afternoon that Polly and I first bonded.
We were entering Washington, D.C. airspace in a small jet high above the clouds. The weather was clear, and save for the unusually high traffic patterns, there wasn’t anything unusual about our approach to the Capitol.
Polly and I were the only passengers, sitting over the wing in the eight-seat jet. We were talking politics as we had throughout the hour and a half flight from Milwaukee when suddenly Polly squeezed my left hand with enough force to cause me to gasp. As the pain sent shock waves up my arm, I noticed the sharp sway of the plane and then watched in horror upon seeing what Polly was fixated on through the cabin window: a large jet coming straight at us.
Fortunately, we veered off just in time, prompting a sigh of relief from Polly as I quickly continued our conversation. It wasn’t that I wasn’t scared, but more so because page 109 of the manhood bible says we’re always supposed to be in control–always present a manly appearance around a woman; never let them see you sweat.
Actually, that scenario represented the first time I saw a weakness in State Representative Annette ‘Polly’ Williams.
Polly, who announced last week that she will retire at the conclusion of her current term, was the epitome of restrained cool when not earning her reputation as the Black community’s most outspoken and nationalistic elected official during her 30 years of public service.
She’s been called racially confrontational, pragmatic and a non-conformist.
A national newsmagazine once described her as courageous and unwavering. A local television show called her provocative. A local newspaper introduced a neo-racist caricature of her.
She was once portrayed in a civil rights organization’s internal newsletter as a ‘grandmotherly angel with the bite of a dragon.’
The latter reference was not implied as a compliment, but more as a warning to the traditional, complacent civil rights community that Polly didn’t play the game by the status quo rules that ensure Black progress will always move at a snail’s pace.
Interestingly, while Polly was viewed as a champion of Black empowerment by the grass roots, she often found herself at odds with her political party, the Negrocracy and most ironically, the civil rights community.
That was because Polly was numbered among the few Black leaders not under the thumb, checkbook or conflicting interests of the puppeteers and poverty pimps who control the Civil Rights Movement through financing or misguided alliances.
In laymen’s terms, Polly put Black people before her party, and usurped the missionary agenda with one of immediacy and empowering benefits. And worse still (from their perspective) she challenged their philosophy, legitimacy and true support for a meaningful Black agenda.
You need but retrace Polly’s history of non-traditional activism to witness both her role in not only altering the political status quo, but also how the walls of apartheid run through both conservative and liberal paradigms.
Polly all but stood alone in challenging the 1976 federal court school desegregation decree. Not only did Polly challenge the propaganda scheme that described the process as ‘integration’ versus desegregation, she also lambasted the school board—specifically Black board directors, who supported what the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights later called a ‘scam against the Black community.’
Even before the ink dried on Federal Court Judge John Reynolds’ court order, Polly had joined with Larry Harwell (who later became her chief of staff) of the Organizations of Organizations (Triple O) in decrying the plan’s inequitable busing and other discriminatory provisions.
Reportedly on one wintry morning, Polly observed a small Black child standing in sub-zero temperatures awaiting a school bus that was to take her on a hour long ride to a Southside school where the quality of education was and treatment of incoming Black children were equally poor. Polly wasted no time in articulating her frustration.
She questioned both the educational pot of gold at the end of the busing rainbow and the neo-racist assumption that Black children could only learn when sitting next to a White child.
Much to the dismay of local civil rights groups and MPS officials, Polly rhetorically questioned why White children were allowed to attend neighborhood schools while Black children were forcibly bused, even when space was available at their neighborhood school. She also questioned why only central city schools were targeted for closure by the school board (a process that destroyed the Black community).
She also raised concerns about soaring Black suspension rates under desegregation and, lastly, who was making money from the process—including several local civil rights/community organizations.
Polly’s politics—Black nationalistic agenda—frequently put her at odds with several aforementioned entities in the political and civil rights arenas who were long on rhetoric and short on actual remedies for Black inequities.
In response, Polly’s targets often returned fire, oftentimes seeking to undermine Polly’s activism, when not seeking to undermine her credibility.
Those attacks became most insidious when Polly joined Howard Fuller and other North Division alumni who fought with the school board to retain the then newly constructed North as a neighborhood school.
The attacks resumed several years later when Polly made national headlines upon introducing legislation that carved out a “Black independent school district” as an alternative to what she saw as a hostile, anti-Black public school district.
Surprisingly, her legislation, which would have provided for the creation of a new school district totally controlled by Black stakeholders, won approval in the state assembly. Then Governor Tommy Thompson pledged his support. Only intensive lobbying by the state teachers’ union derailed the bill at the senate level. Then state Senator Gary George engineered the opposition, prompting the first of many verbal confrontations Polly would have with Black colleagues and Democratic Party leadership, which she said were more interested in appeasing the union than in doing what was right for Black children.
Several months after Governor Thompson’s attempt to push through a school choice bill met with a stonewall erected by the teachers union and Democratic Party in 1988, then Milwaukee Public Schools’ Superintendent William Peterkin met with a group of community school representatives. His suggestion of forming a public/private partnership under the banner of a school choice program was nothing short of revolutionary.
Recognizing the value of Black private and community schools, Peterkin sought a unique partnership that would morph the public school system into a system of schools, providing educational options previously unheard of in America.
Polly watched from the periphery until the ‘Peterkin’ bill was hijacked by special interests more concerned about adults than the welfare of children. Polly quickly interceded introducing her own bill.
After both measures were rejected, Polly reconvened the Peterkin group, this time organizing them into an army that redefined the Civil Rights Movement.
The yearlong campaign to enact a school choice program saw Polly’s army of poor mothers and community activists challenged by the so-called progressive Democratic Party, the teachers unions and, again, civil rights groups ironically intent on continuing the failing status quo. To her credit, and often amid criticism of members of the new empowerment movement, Williams refused to publicly denounce the myopic Black opposition, saying that while there was disagreement over school choice, we shared much more in common with them than the Republicans with whom she forged an alliance.
But the lessons learned by the scenario were not ignored.
Polly’s legacy is rooted in three observations ingrained in those who worked with or closely followed the Black state lawmaker’s 30-year sojourn. The ‘Polly Points’ provide not only an observation of politics in the 21st century, but also a possible blueprint for future civil rights strategies:
* “No permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent issues.”
At each step of her educational reform journey, Polly found herself stymied by her own Democratic Party colleagues, the Negrocracy and the daily media, which viewed school choice (and Black empowerment) as being culturally blasphemous.
(Interestingly, with the exception of the teachers’ union–for obvious reasons–most opponents of school choice have reversed themselves. Some have even tried to rewrite history; casting themselves in the role of supporter.)
Polly’s only option was in forging new alliances based on mutual interests. In the case of school choice, it was with Republicans, the business community and conservative leaders, locally and nationally.
* “We must not only plead our own cause, but also pilot the freedom train. (Subtitle: We will remain pawns as long as others continue to make chess moves on our behalf)”
Polly consistently exposed the hypocrisy of the so-called Left: They are our friends only when they control the agenda, methodology and outcome. Whenever the outcome of a campaign is to truly ‘empower’ Black America, they will either derail the freedom train, dilute or redefine our agenda or side with another special interest. If all else fails, they will bring in a member of the Negrocracy to divide and conquer.
Several months ago I heard Rev. Al Sharpton discussing another tactic used by our “friends and benefactors.” He called it “addition by subtraction.”
In that scenario, so-called progressive special interests add our numbers to theirs when we’re needed to strengthen their campaign. But when it comes to having a presence at the victory table, there’s no one who looks like us invited.
Sharpton used that analogy for the stimulus package debates. Democratic Party leadership and special interests used our poverty index and our unemployment numbers to demand federal monies. But we weren’t allowed at the table when they decided how to divide up the bounty.
* Black America needs more tree shakers and fewer cotton pickers.
Many attribute Dr. Martin Luther King’s success in part to the alternative offered by Malcolm X. Malik El Shabazz didn’t believe in non-violence, demonstrating for basic human rights, or waiting for a change of attitude. His rallying cry was ‘by any means necessary.’
Faced with that possibility, America quickly faked support for King’s methodology.
Similar scenarios can be found in politics.
Historians will admit more Black political progress was made when Michael McGee, Sr. shook the tree at city hall, or when Polly put Black people before partisan politics at the state capitol than at any time in recent history.
We have some great ‘politicians’ who know how to manipulate the game. But how much progress has really been made when you play by the rules set by the status quo? More often than not we get the illusion of inclusion, and fancy sounding programs and bills that do little to change the status quo. Another tactic is to name a task force or commission to ‘study’ Black problems.
The truth of the matter is collectively, our corps of Black elected officials are rarely unified, and all but refuse to buck the system, even for obvious Black concerns.
We elect them, for the most part, based on their ability to articulate the issues, instead of finding solutions.
Polly was an exception. She wasn’t in office to play the game, to be submissive to partisan political policies, or to fuel her ego. She boldly declared she was solely interested in the ‘Black’ agenda, empowering Black people and tearing down the walls of apartheid brick by brick, if necessary. She was unabashedly Black. Unlike many, if not most of her “colored” colleagues, she didn’t call herself a politician who happened to be Black, but a Black politician.
Her value in that regard cannot be under estimated.
I had the opportunity to serve as one of Polly’s lieutenants. I got to know her in ways few had the opportunity. My book, ‘Not Yet Free At Last,’ started off being a biography of Annette Polly Williams. It morphed into a chronology of the local educational reform movement, with Polly as the central catalyst.
Polly is leaving the political world with criticism of her Black colleagues on her lips and a fear that their adherence to the political status quo stagnates true Black progress.
Her legacy proves that without at least one tree shaker at every level of government, the fruit will never reach the ground.
We have many dedicated and progressive Black politicians. But, there’s an inherent grain of truth to her fears. If we had a half dozen Polly Williams, I’m sure we would be dining on a much larger slice of the pie.
August 19, 2012 //
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