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As others pledge to flag, BMHA's Leonard Williams sits quietly

While other Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority members stand to salute the flag at the beginning of each board meeting, tenant-elected Commissioner Leonard Williams sits, his hands at his side.

"The same as the athletes who take a knee, until I see - especially - young black males treated correctly by police and courts, I can't stand (up) to salute the flag," Williams said.

Williams sat quietly at Thursday's pledge to the flag, just as he has at every other board meeting since elected to his current BMHA term in the summer of 2016.

Williams, 74, hasn't said a word about it all these months. Neither have any other board members.

When asked by The Buffalo News Thursday about Williams' quiet protest, BMHA board chairman David Rodriguez - who always stands to salute the flag -  said Williams has a right to his views.

"I view it as his right to express his feelings and exercise his rights as an American," Rodriguez said.

Williams, who served in the U.S. Air Force during the 1960s, describes himself as patriotic, and said he flies an American flag at his home on appropriate holidays.

But, Williams said, he supports the protest started in 2016 by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee at NFL games during the national anthem to protest what Kaepernick called the nation's oppression of African Americans and other people of color.

"I am patriotic. I served in the Air Force. I fly a flag at my home on appropriate holidays," Williams said. "I will not stand to salute until certain conditions in term of the treatment of young black men changes."

The BMHA commissioner went on to say he is particularly concerned with police shootings of blacks nationally.

"I want them to stop shooting them," Williams.

"They unfairly target black men, young  black men," Williams said of police throughout the country. "When a young black man gets stopped in a car by police, the first thing he has to do is get his hands on the steering wheel. Particularly young black men.

"Until black people can be treated fairly in this country," Williams said, "then standing to salute a flag and saying 'one nation under God' when you are not treated that way, is not something I can do."

This isn't the first time Williams has protested American treatment of blacks by refusing to salute the flag.

While serving in the Air Force in the early to mid-1960s, Williams recalled spending time in Florida, in the Tampa area.

"I was a Northern boy going to the South," he said."There were signs over dirty ebony fountains that said 'colored only' and clean porcelain fountains that said 'whites only.'"

He also recalled waiting to be served in a bar in downtown Tampa, while the bartender, Williams said, waited on everyone around him.

"Would you mind taking my order," he recalled saying. "She said 'I couldn't see you back there, was too dark.'"

When the bartender finally took his order, Williams said, she first said she didn't have what he ordered and then, when he pointed to the drink he requested, she asked if he wanted it "to go."

It was because of incidents like these, Williams said, he stopped saluting the flag once returning home from the Air Force in the mid-1960s.

"We are talking about the heart of the civil rights movement," Williams said. "It wasn't just my personal experiences, but what was going on. One nation under God. Give me a break."

When the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and in Washington, D.C. occurred in 2001, Williams said, his mother asked why he wasn't displaying an American flag on his car. He bought a flag. "I couldn't explain to her I didn't have a flag after the tragic event that happened in our country. This is our country," he said.

Williams saluted the flag for years after that.

But when there was report after report of unarmed black men shot by police, followed by protests by Kaepernick and then other football players, it became apparent that it was time to again take a stand, Williams said.

"You see these black men shot by police, you start to say 'Yeah, you've made steps forward, but you're making steps backward.'

"I didn't think about it until the football protests. But it's time," he said. "It's time for some folks to stand up and say 'Enough is enough.'

"I'm too old to be involved in protests," he continued. "I have to turn to younger colleagues to do that. But you do what you can do. And if all you can do is not stand for the pledge, then I'm not."

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