She has had a positive impact on generations of Longview residents.
And though the life of Sidney Bell Willis ended this week, we are certain her positive presence will continue to be felt for generations to come through the countless lives she touched and her official accomplishments.
As a schoolteacher for 43 years, Mrs. Willis nurtured countless young people’s minds. Using her gift as a music minister, she glorified God through song. And as a Longview City Council member, she worked to help make our city’s streets safer, to put in place a city transit system, to boost the south-side area she represented until 2011 — and to always stand up and speak out for what is right and just.
Her record of accomplishment for Longview cannot be denied. Neither can the fact her path to such distinction was not an easy one.
A product of Longview’s once-segregated public school system, Mrs. Willis preferred to focus on the movement away from that era, on the opportunities she found in Longview, and not to dwell on the past.
Receiving the Unity Award in 2009 from the city’s Race Relations Committee, she praised the community for progress away from its racist roots.
“You are sitting here today as people who want to see differences dissolved and unity achieved,” she said. “I love Longview. I would never choose to be anywhere else. This community has nurtured me and been the foundation of all my dreams.”
Because of her work, Longview has been — and will be — the foundation for many more dreams for many years to come.
The life of Sidney Bell Willis should serve as an example to all of us of how to make our lives, and our communities, better places.
Those who knew her, and many did, said they could visualize Sidney Bell Willis singing in heaven’s choir, teaching angels how to enunciate properly and, most likely, championing others.
Willis, 76, who served as District 3 city councilwoman from 2002 until 2011, died Sunday surrounded by family after an extended illness.
“She was what I call a trailblazer for justice, for education and human rights,” said Kasha Williams, District 3 councilwoman. “Mrs. Willis was involved in so many things in the community.”
Before she represented south side neighborhoods on the City Council, Willis was an educator. When she ran for political office in 2002, she was a retired teacher of 43 years with Longview Independent School District.
Friends say she was a gifted musician, having served as music minister at St. Mark CME, for more than 20 years. She also taught piano lessons.
Williams described the woman she replaced on the City Council as “much more than a political mentor. She was a longtime friend of the family who always encouraged others.
“I have known Mrs. Willis all my life,” Williams said. “She probably knew me even before I was born. Our families shared a close, personal connection.”
Photo by LNJ, Michael Cavazos
Mayor Jay Dean remembered Willis fondly, calling her a “class act who would be missed by many.
“I worked with Mrs. Willis before being elected mayor,” Dean said. “We had some very good discussions — me representing Northwest Longview and her representing south Longview, and us looking out for our districts. It was not always pleasant, but we always had mutual respect. She was a fine, classy, Christian lady.”
Willis was dedicated to District 3. In 2005, when the Lilly Street area was ripped apart by numerous drive-by shootings, Willis confronted the issue head-on.
“Mrs. Willis got right out front real quick. We got the police, the ministerial alliance and neighbors involved,” Dean said. “Mrs. Willis contacted me, we started together the Unity and Community Project to try to go into the neighborhood with focus and prayer to bring people together,” Dean said.
She worked for the people of her district, always trying to improve drainage and streets.
City Manager David Willard said he was impressed with Willis from the first time he met her.
“She was on the Council that hired me in 2007, and she was always very helpful to me,” he said. “I will remember her as a very elegant, classy woman. She will be missed.”
Since her election in 2011 to the council seat Willis held, Williams said she often sought Willis’ advice.
“I could always call on her for any kind of advisement. Even outside of politics she was always there as a mentor and a friend. She was family,” Williams said. “She always guided me in my decision making. When she spoke, people would respond.”
While Willis spent most of her last years on the City Council, she never forgot her time in the classroom and never failed to promote the value of a good education.
“One of the things that set her apart was her focus on education. She was always very smart, very articulate,” Williams said.
Willis also was a member of the NAACP, and a recipient of the city’s Race Relations Committee Unity Award.
Willis was a member of Top Ladies of Distinction and the first Top Teens Advisor.
“She was a woman of high ethical character and caliber. She was willing to serve as a leader, as a catalyst of our community and those who knew her best, know that to be so,” Williams said.
Editor’s note: This is second in a series of stories examining homicide in Longview. Click here to read the first story. Click here for more information on Longview homicides in the past five years.
If you live in the city of Longview, you are most likely to be a murder victim if you are a black male, about 35 years old, somewhere south of Cotton Street.
A News-Journal analysis of data from the Longview Police Department paints this portrait of the city’s murder victims and suspects: Although the victims are of all races, more than half of people killed since January 2008 — 54 percent — are black. Nine white victims and seven Hispanic victims account for the remaining 46 percent.
While Longview’s homicide rate is on par for a city its size — 35 victims in the past five years — the percentage of black victims is substantially larger. According to the 2010 census, blacks made up about 23 percent of Longview’s population.
“The problem that I see is that for black people to make up only a small portion of the total population, but yet make up such a large portion of violent offenses, really speaks to the cyclical problems in violence,” said Brandon Johnson, president of the NAACP in Longview.
Of 17 arrests made in connection with the 35 homicides, 12 — representing 70.1 percent — of the suspects are black.
Part of the reason, Johnson said, is that where there is less opportunity, there is more crime.
Job opportunities are limited on the south side and not everyone has a car, he said.
Based on race, the percentage of victims in Longview is disproportional to the national average, according to the FBI’s 2010 Crimes in the United States report.
Nationally, 46.5 percent of homicide victims in 2010 were white, compared with 26 percent in Longview.
Half of all homicide victims in the U.S. in 2010 were black while in Longview the percentage was 55 percent.
The seven Hispanic victims in Longview since 2008 account for 20 percent of total homicides, but Hispanic deaths were too few to be uniquely classified on the 2010 national report.
Age, gender, location
The average age of homicide victims in Longview since 2008 is 35.2 years old. Analysis of homicide data reveals the average age at the time of death is relative to a victim’s race.
The average age of the seven Hispanic victims was 27.3 years old — 14 years younger than the average 41.6 -year-old white victim. The age of black victims is 35.1 years old.
Local statistics also vary from national numbers when cases are divided by gender.
Nationally, 22.5 percent of all homicide victims were female in 2010, according to the FBI report.
The homicide rate for women in Longview is half the national average — the four female victims killed since 2008 represent 11 percent of victims, according to police department data.
The female victims were, on average, older than Longview’s male victims: The average age of a female victim was 39.5, while males averaged 34.5 years old.
No part of the city is immune from violence. Since 2008, at least one homicide has been reported in every police beat. However, data shows more homicides occur south of the downtown area.
Since 2008, three-fourths of homicides in Longview — 25 of 35 — happened in police beats 50 and 60, which roughly correspond to Longview City Council districts 2 and 3.
The remaining murders were dispersed across the city.
City Councilwoman Kasha Williams said crime occurs everywhere, and the area south of U.S. 80 can gain a dangerous reputation if residents only focus on a specific type of crime.
Williams represents District 3, a section of the area south of downtown.
“Crime is going to happen where it is going to happen,” she said. “I find it troubling that there are people who perceive that all of the crime takes place south of Highway 80, when they look at one particular crime, such as homicide.”
Williams said she was encouraged by the decrease in the number of crimes each year — a statistic borne out by the Longview Police Department data.
She credited the work of the Longview Police Department.
“Right now, year to date, there have been two homicides,” Williams said. “When you put that into the bigger picture of a community our size, that shows that we have the right kind of people on staff at our police department.”
‘Addressing the crime’
The Longview Police Department divides the city into six beats, each with a police area representative (PAR). Those beats roughly correspond with the six City Council districts, but are not designed to follow the same boundaries.
“They are addressing the crime through prevention efforts, and that is something that is crucial,” Williams said. “They have taken the time to develop relationships with neighbors. When something happens, somebody will come forward.”
Williams said people in each community need to support and encourage their neighbors to do the right thing.
“If we are going to coexist in the community we must support each other ... I want people to be encouraged to come forth and participate in our community policing and our crime watch groups,” Williams said. “The resources are out there for us to use.”
HOUSTON (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden rallied support for President Barack Obama before the nation’s largest civil rights organization on Thursday, declaring that Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s election-year agenda would hurt — not help — working families in the black community.
HOUSTON (AP) — Unflinching before a skeptical NAACP crowd, Mitt Romney declared Wednesday he’d do more for African-Americans than Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president. He drew jeers when he lambasted the Democrat’s policies.