Janeicia Williams, 18, of Austin, isn’t one of those millennials who questions the relevancy of age-old African American institutions or whose eyes glaze over if you ask her what the acronym NAACP stands for.
She knows. She’s in it. Williams, who recently graduated from Lane Tech College Prep near the top of her class, is president of the West Side Branch NAACP (whose letters stand for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
She thought about going to Harvard, Syracuse and Georgetown before settling on what writer Ta-Nehisi Coates simply calls the “Mecca” and describes it this way:
“The Mecca is a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body. The Mecca derives its power from the heritage of Howard University, which in Jim Crow days enjoyed a near-monopoly on black talent.”
Coates calls Howard University in Washington D.C., “the only truly comprehensive black university and one of the major engineers of change in our society.”
Williams’ reason for bypassing those elite “white” universities to attend the Mecca is similar to Coates’ and is as old as the university itself — so is her reason for being involved in the NAACP and her articulate defense of why many people who dismiss Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. probably don’t know a fraction of what he is still doing.
“I applied to Howard not knowing that it would be a sure option for me,” Williams said in a recent phone interview. “But then I looked into the school and saw the culture and the things that an HBCU [Historically Black College and University] had to offer, which a traditionally white institution wouldn’t. Going to an HBCU forms a better community and gives you a better definition of what it means to be not just an exceptional black student, but an exceptional student, period.”
Williams’ response to anyone who may consider the NAACP irrelevant or outmoded is also age-old. The biggest and oldest civil rights organization in the country, she says, never really went anywhere.
“There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that the NAACP does that people don’t always get to hear about,” said Williams, noting the organization’s numerous branches and outgrowths, such as an annual talent and academic competition called ACT-SO (Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics), which it holds each year for exceptional black high school students across the country.
Williams said her own work with the West Side Branch’s youth council often flies under the radar — from talent shows the group has organized to its work helping ex-offenders.
“Media outlets aren’t always the first to report on town hall meetings held to push a bill to protect housing or to help ex-offenders secure jobs. Those things aren’t properly publicized,” she said.
“Programs like ACT-SO are building-block programs that people just don’t talk about often, but we’re promoting black excellence and teaching people their history so they know where they came from. NAACP lawyers worked on the Trayvon Martin case. Things like that aren’t always showcased.”
Williams’ extracurricular activity both at Lane Tech and outside of school, is as extensive as the terms and conditions manual for an iPhone — Black Student Association, National Honor Society, Louder Than A Bomb (a poetry team that competes in a prestigious competition of the same name), Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, basketball team.
She’s a modern girl. But she has an old-fashioned respect for venerable civil rights organizations and activists like Jackson, whose PUSH Excel Oratorical Competition allowed her opportunities she never imagined were available.
“Through that program, I’ve memorized speeches and recited them in front of corporate executives, lawyers, judges, all kinds of city leaders,” she said. “I also got to do a commercial on NBC through working with that program.”
After performing during one of Jackson’s international Saturday broadcasts, Williams said, a woman called her to give her a $1,000 scholarship.
An aspiring civil rights attorney (who can also see herself making laws in a legislative body), Williams said that, far from distancing legacy institutions and civil rights organizations, young people should leverage them to their advantage.
This knowledge comes by birthright. Williams’ mother, well-known West Side community organizer Deborah Williams, has relationships with (or is at least one degree separated from) just about every activist and organizing entity on the West Side and has volunteered or done paid organizing work for many local, state and national campaigns, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s.
If the mother has her way, her daughter will be opening an Austin campaign office during her own presidential run — a prospect that the younger Williams downplays.
Right now, she said, she’s just focused on preparing for her journey to the Mecca.