A proclamation designating February as Black History Month in Santa Barbara County that was unanimously approved Feb. 2 by the Board of Supervisors, celebrates the importance of Black families and their role in American history.

The recognition was marred, however, by comments from one public speaker, which prompted another member of the public to take the board to task for failing to refute those comments.

“I wasn’t planning to speak, but I called in after I heard that horrible comment and not one of you, when given the time to address and condemn what that person said, took the time to say that,” said Simone Akila Ruskamp, co-founder of Healing Justice Santa Barbara.

The proclamation was presented to Jordan Killebrew, co-leader of Healing Justice Santa Barbara; Wendy Sims-Moten, executive director of First 5 Santa Barbara County; and Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt, president of the Santa Maria-Lompoc Chapter of the NAACP.

All three speakers talked about the importance of Black families in the contributions Blacks have made to American history, which is the national theme for Black History Month.

Sims-Moten noted it’s important for all Americans to study our complete history to gain understanding.

“As we understand each other more and more, we will come to a place of understanding, will come to a place of all Americans without segregating out as this or that,” she said.

Lyons-Pruitt said when she was growing up in rural Mississippi in the 1960s and ’70s, such things as doctor’s offices and drinking fountains were labeled “white” and “colored,” her history books contained no mention of slavery, lynchings and church bombings and Blacks were considered three-fifths of a human being.

She also recalled how her grandfather had become a railroad track worker at age 15 to support his family.

“I remember sitting by a kerosene lamp and having him, with a third grade education, helping me with my homework,” Lyons-Pruitt said, noting she didn’t really begin to learn about Black history until she moved to California.

Killebrew talked about the importance of learning history by listening to individuals’ stories about their families, and he related how his father-in-law recently confided that just last year he learned what Juneteenth was.

“Juneteenth,” a term made by combining “June” with “nineteenth,” is a celebration commemorating the June 19, 1865 announcement by Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger that Texas was free of slavery.

Thomas Becker, the only member of the public who asked to speak about the resolution, said he had found some of his ancestors were slaveholders and others were abolitionists.

He learned a relative from a slaveholding family who married an abolitionist had received a slave girl as part of her early inheritance, although the girl was given her freedom when they moved to a free state.

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Becker then quoted and paraphrased Malcolm X, who blamed the leaders of his time for some of the problems Blacks have faced:

“Your leadership has really sold you down the river” and fed Blacks lies to keep them repressed.

Becker repeated Malcolm X’s claim that “your communities are filled with drugs and crime,” blaming “the Democrats who put you there and keep you there,” and asserting government is “actively suppressing those raising issues of civil rights.”

Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann, 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino and Chairman and 4th District Supervisor Bob Nelson followed his comments with their own but didn’t address his claims directly.

“Something that continues to amaze me … is the Americans who have suffered the most suppression and discrimination are the ones calling on us to be our better selves,” Lavagnino said.

Hartmann said telling personal stories takes courage because “it strips away the armor we bring to our everyday lives” but that “does call out our better angels.”

That’s when Ruskamp called in to berate supervisors for their lack of response to Becker’s comments.

“So it’s not congruent for you to say you’re going to celebrate and issue a proclamation of Black History Month while you allow Black people, who have just presented with you, who have shared their stories about their families, and you let them sit through that without correcting the comment and saying, ‘You know what, this information is untrue, it is anti-Black and it is harmful,’” she continued.

“I would ask you to commit to doing more because obviously you are not doing enough. … I would encourage you to actually do the things that are coming out of your mouth.”

Williams responded that based on Becker’s previous behavior, he sees him as a bully, and that type of behavior “is not mitigated by even dignifying it with a response.”

During a discussion of another topic later in the meeting, Becker asserted he is not a bully and has a right to express his opinions directly to supervisors in a meeting.

This story has been updated to clarify that Thomas Becker's comments quoted and paraphrased Malcolm X.

Series: Recent Santa Barbara County Supervisors coverage

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