by CRAIG COLEY
In 1909, a multi-racial group of activists formed the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization. Today, the local branch of the organization maintains that tradition of diversity, with as many white members as African American members. “Just like the underground railroad wouldn’t have been successful unless it had some majority input, neither would the NAACP,” says William Vance, president of the Monroe County branch, founded in 1978. “It takes everybody to effect change.”
The NAACP has a number of educational initiatives, but Vance says the heart and soul of the group’s work is responding to complaints of civil rights violations, which average between five and 10 a year. A typical complaint is about unfair treatment at work, school, or in housing. In many cases, the problem goes away when the NAACP announces its involvement. Other complaints are resolved through mediation. In a few instances, local attorneys have taken legal action. “We haven’t had an issue where we’ve had to involve the national [organization],” Vance says, “but if we do, they’ll be there.”
Vance, 60, was the branch’s second president and now he is also its fourth. Raised in Indianapolis, he moved to Bloomington in 1985 when he took a job at Crane, the naval support base in Martin County. He joined the Second Baptist Church of Bloomington, where he met Clarence Gilliam, a deacon in the church and NAACP president for its first 25 years. “Mr. Gilliam always said, ‘Help the NAACP before the NAACP needs to help you,’” Vance says.
Vance became NAACP secretary in 1993 and was elected president in 2003 when Gilliam stepped down. After presiding for 12 years, he was replaced by Jim Sims for two. He was elected again in 2018 after Sims became a member of Bloomington City Council and did not seek another term. “I’m glad to be back,” Vance says. “Feels good. Feels right.”
Membership blossomed to about 200 members during Sims’ tenure, and Vance hopes to maintain that number. His wife, Debra, is membership chair, and education chair at the state level. An assistant minister at Second Baptist and a classical guitarist, Vance retired from Crane in 2017 and immediately began studying applied sciences at Ivy Tech Community College—Bloomington. He plans to join his son, Robert, 24, in the business of remodeling houses.