Editor’s Note: This is the first of four profiles we will publish for Black History Month, with a focus on Raleigh and the people of Raleigh’s place in the Civil Rights movement.
Wake County Commissioner James West once spent time in jail.
“We weren’t really criminals. We were just in it for what we thought was right,” he said.
He and other students and protesters were arrested during a march on a theater in downtown Greensboro during the Civil Rights era of the early 1960s. Much like the rest of the South, Greensboro was segregated. Thousands of students, he said, came to the rally. So many were arrested, officials weren’t sure where to put them.
West was a student at North Carolina A&T University at that time. He shared an economics class with Jesse Jackson, who lead the march. He had known many students that had taken part in the historic Woolworth sit-in.
“That experience really stuck with me,” he said.
Since then West has been striving to empower people.
West grew up on a farm in Sampson County, where he said he learned a lot about management and leadership. Farm life was hard and there were always decisions to be made and things to manage.
“I didn’t even realize I was learning it,” he said.
He came to Raleigh in 1970. Back then, West recalls the black community being closer-knit than it is now. There were black-owned stores and businesses and there was a sense of interdependence among residents.
As the neighborhood demographics shifted and big box retailers moved in, that tight-knit community changed.
“I think we had a lot of neighborhood pride,” recalled West.
The community didn’t have wealth, but they worked together closely.
West was elected as a Raleigh City Council in 1999 after a number of years serving on various boards, committees and commissions. He represented — and now as a County Commissioner continues to represent — some of Raleigh’s poorest residents.
Many of the minority and low-income census tracts continue to be in Southeast Raleigh, but West said that there is an entire swath of poverty that extends into Knightdale. He compared Wake County to some other North Carolina counties where the poverty levels are higher.
He explained that as a percentage of the population, Wake might have half of what another county does, but double the people in poverty.
“The impact is so much greater because we have so many more people,” he said.
While many of the legal barriers of equality have been removed, West said that others still remain.
“I still think that in this country, we have other barriers, spiritually and mentally, that keep people behind,” he said.
Include the history of slavery, and West said that sometimes people become prisoners of their own mind. For some people that can be enough of a barrier.
While still sitting on the City Council, West partnered with then-Mayor Paul Coble to create the Southeast Raleigh Alliance (SERA) in 2001.
SERA’s main goal was to empower members of the community, by giving them the training, tools and education they needed to increase their economic standing. Keeping the wealth within the community, said West, would help strengthen it as a whole.
The organization began as a publicly-sponsored task force, but has since become a private nonprofit.
Just five years ago, West helped create Youth Thrive to deal with a rise in homicides involving Raleigh’s young people. The goal is to help guide teens into become productive adults.
West said that seeing the fruits of his labor is motivating, especially when people have become so complacent and divisive.
Unlike the problems of his generation, West said that today’s problems are less obvious and more subtle. A “whites only” sign was blatant signal of the problems the black community faced. Today, the problems are more under-the-surface and when it finally creeps up the community might not be equipped to address it.
There are some up and coming leaders in the Black community, and West said he continues to urge them to get involved by joining boards and commissions, much like he did when he was a younger activist.
“They do it different than folks like me who came out of the Civil Rights era,” he said.