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MINA WILSON... Honoring my father's legacy
February 2, 2008 by Mable Yee
As a young girl attending elementary school in El Cerrito, California Mina Wilson had to learn some hard lessons growing up. When she started, her family was one of the few African American families attending her primarily White elementary school. Everyday Mina had to endure taunts and verbal abuse from a group of girls about anything and everything about her that was different from them. The color of her skin, the size of her lips, the look and feel of her hair; anything these girls wanted to say to make Mina feel badly. Mina held it all in and didn't share any of it with her family. Going to school everyday and being bullied and picked on was the torture she endured silently.

One day the girls crossed the line and said something really mean that got Mina furious. She couldn't take it anymore and before she knew it, she found herself on top of the girls in a big fight. She was outnumbered but it didn't matter. She was sent to the principal's office, suspended and sent home. Needless to say, her parents were shocked. Mina didn't know what to expect from her parents. Her mother was very upset but her father listened to the whole story and then spoke quietly to her. He told her "Mina, I am not going to punish you, because they were wrong, but you cannot go through life fighting with your fists, which he held up…but with this…and he pointed to his brains." He went on to explain to her that fighting physically was not going to win any battles. However, if she developed her mind and learned how to outwit her opponents…she would win.

Now Mina's father was not only a wise man, he was a very committed civil rights advocate and an important person in our history of the United States. Charles E. Wilson grew up as a young man in Portsmouth, Virginia. He was the first person in his family to go to college. At that time, there were no colleges for African Americans in the Tidewater area of Virginia. So the African American leaders in the community got together and approached Virginia Union University in Richmond VA about starting a satellite campus of their University in Norfolk for African American students to attend. They were successful, and the school was known as The Norfolk Unit of Virginia Union University. It has evolved over the years into the institution now known as Norfolk State University. Both Mina's parents and her Aunt were members of the first graduating class. After graduating and marrying Lucy, his high school sweetheart, Charles volunteered for Military service. He knew he wanted to further his education, but without the financial means available, the GI Bill was his ticket to an advanced degree. Once he was honorably discharged from the Army, he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a lawyer. He wanted to attend Columbia University in New York. However, in those days, Columbia only allowed one African American student to attend per year. Both he and his best friend wanted to attend, so they decided that he would go first, and his friend would follow the next year.

After Charles graduated from Columbia, there was very little demand for African American lawyers. He read in a copy of the NAACP periodical, The Crisis Magazine, that they were looking for leaders out west. He contacted Noah Griffin, who was the President of the San Francisco Branch of the NAACP, and after a conversation with him, determined that he would move himself and his family to California. Noah Griffin said that he was going on a 3 month sabbatical to Europe and that Charles could come out and live his house while he found himself a job.

While working to pass the California Bar exam, he took a job as a janitor at Kaiser Hospital in San Francisco. He brought out his wife and children and settled in. Once he passed the Bar exam, he went into private practice. In the late 1950's he applied for a job with the State of California. Once he was hired, he was asked by Governor Edmund Pat Brown to draft the California Fair Employment Practices legislation. Charles went to work and while drafting the law, was smart enough to include a position in the law for Legal Counsel to oversee this landmark piece of legislation. This was the first piece of fair employment legislation to be enacted and went on to become the basis for the Affirmative Action policies later adopted by the Federal government.

Charles became the Acting Director overseeing the implementation and enforcement of the Fair Employment Practices. In later years he was appointed as a Judge and retired soon after his youngest child graduated from college.

Mina's father' work, wisdom and guidance heavily influenced her. She was too young to comprehend the impact of her parent's work. She didn't know that many of the meetings that took place in her home, family church, and local community centers involved many of the prominent leaders supporting civil rights and legislation efforts to establish and protect the civil liberties for all people. Her father was an important spokesperson and leader of the NAACP, spokesperson and advocate for civil rights in the State of California, many counties around the state, and the City of El Cerrito, CA.

When Mina's father passed away, people came to pay their respects and talk about the important contributions that her father had made. It really wasn't until that moment that Mina began to understand the impact her father's life had made and how he was truly a hero in many people's lives. She only knew him as her "Daddy" who loved to take them fishing, play with them and always made time to listen and guide them.

Mina herself is now a single mother with two children: Malia Ophelia who is 6 and Malcolm Charles who is 4. Mina still experiences overt and covert racism and seeks to manage the effect they have on her children's lives. Recently when she was talking to her children about the importance of Black History Month, Malia pronounced to her: "Mama, you don't have to tell me who Rosa Parks is, I learned about her in school. She's the Black woman who stole the White man's seat on the bus".

Mina sat there stunned and outraged. Please don't let this be what they taught her at school. What were these people teaching her daughter at school? She responded to Malia gently and said "Baby, that's not exactly the way it happened". She dug through the family's video arsenal to pull out movies that depicted accurate images of the movement. She shared those with Malia to correct her and to ensure she understood what truly happened. Mina was outraged and spoke to the school teacher. As a result, she spent four mornings presenting lessons on Black History to Malia's class. Of course, Mina did not leave out one very important man whose contributions changed the course of our country and many lives……Charles E. Wilson. in her hunt to locate images, she ran across a tape of her father receiving the Contra Costa Board of Supervisor's Martin Luther King, Jr. award from 1996. It was the ultimate gift and the first time her children had ever heard their grandfather speak.

"The most important lessons I want to leave with my children are the accurate knowledge of who they are, faith in God and practical life skills that will empower them to accomplish, develop their gifts and actualize their dreams."

Mina shared with us: "I always vote, my parents did not just tell me, they showed me how important it was to vote. I bought my first bike with money I was paid for passing out flyers for a city council campaign. Voting is something many take for granted. As I reflected back upon my parents' story to get ready for this interview, I realized that when my mother turned 18, she did not have the right to vote." So many people sacrificed their lives to secure that right for us, how can we NOT exercise it?

It is vitally important for all of us whose ancestors toiled and suffered building the foundation upon which this nation stands and whose parents fought so hard for the right to vote, to claim our right and cast our vote. It is the only way our voices and opinions will be heard and counted. If you are not willing to stand up and speak up for what you believe in, then don't complain when you receive the crumbs from the banquet table.

I now can thank Charles Wilson, for I know he dramatically impacted my life. Without Affirmative Action, I would never have had the opportunity to become the person that I am today. Whenever there are Black History Month celebrations I feel I now have a personal connection to honor the memory and life work of Charles Wilson and the people who have fought so hard to establish and defend our civil liberties. Thank you Mina for sharing your father's wisdom and legacy with all of us.

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