RI civil rights leader Clifford Montiero honored as ‘creator of history’

Now 83 years old and living in Florida, Montiero was honored Thursday night as a “creator of history” by the Rhode Island Historical Society, which recognized him for “decades of taking a stand in Rhode Island, working tirelessly to improve access, opportunity and equality. The presentation was part of a virtual fundraising event titled ‘Come Together: Take a Stand in 1960s Rhode Island’.

Clifford R. Montiero, center, listens to then-Providence Mayor Joseph A. Doorley Jr. in the 1960s, when Montiero led the former Racial Equality CongressCourtesy of Clifford R. Montiero

“Cliff is a living legend,” said Keith Stokes, vice president of the 1696 Heritage Group of Newport, which speaks nationwide on African American heritage and history. “Thank you for making Rhode Island a better place for all of us.”

Montiero headed the Rhode Island chapter of the former Racial Equality Congress and was president of the Providence branch of the NAACP. In 2015, he returned to Selma, Ala., To cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years to the day after he walked there with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

Thursday’s Zoom event included comments from senior officials such as U.S. Democratic Senator Jack Reed.

“Cliff Montiero has helped bend the arc of history towards justice here in Rhode Island and across the country,” Reed said. “From sleepwalkers to the State House for Fair Housing, to the marches in Washington and Selma, to the daily efforts required to support a movement, Cliff has been at the forefront of the fight for equality, justice, and opportunity. “

U.S. Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said people often think the civil rights movement is taking place in the south, but he said it involved active Rhode Islanders such as Montiero.

“He was in the South to register voters. He walked with Martin Luther King to Selma. Here in Rhode Island, he slept at the State House for Fair Housing, ”Whitehouse said. “He has always been at the forefront of change.”

“Mr. Montiero, you have left your mark on the world with an inspiring legacy,” said Parliamentary Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, a Republican from Block Island. “You have instigated positive change and created felt ripples. today and in the future. If only each of us made the same contributions, our communities and our world would be all the better for it. “

The video tribute also included historical background from historians, archival footage, and a recent interview with Montiero.

In the 1968 WTEV-TV / Channel 6 interview, Montiero called for expanding black history education.

“I would say the first thing I would do is re-evaluate our history classes,” he said. “I think it’s very important that the black community realizes its contributions to America and the white community realizes the contributions of black people so that we develop inner pride and respect.”

The comments echo those made on Tuesday when the state House of Representatives passed a bill requiring African American history to be taught in Rhode Island schools. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Anastasia P. Williams, a Democrat from Providence, spoke about the need to teach not only Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade, but also the inventions and contributions that Black Americans have made it over the years.

During the 1968 interview, Montiero said, “The second thing would be to have employment opportunities, programs focused with industry.”

He said he worked closely with former US Senators Claiborne Pell and John O. Pastore on a “workforce program” called the Industrialization Opportunity Center. In 1990, Rhode Island Community College acquired the OCI building in South Providence to serve as its Providence campus.

And he said he spoke to Pell about the need to offer black people the opportunity to go to college before the Rhode Island senator launched the federal Pell Grant program.

Montiero told the television reporter that the third thing he would do “is to immediately provide adequate and decent housing. And he had been a leading advocate for the Fair Housing Practices Act, which then Governor John H. Chafee signed in 1965, aimed at preventing racial discrimination in housing.

In televised footage of the 1965 bill signing, Montiero looks straight at the camera saying, “All men are created equal, and we want these words to really mean something.” We believe in the American dream and you are part of this American dream. “

Montiero, a former Providence police officer and retired deputy sheriff, has long advocated for greater diversity in law enforcement and the courts. And in an interview on Friday, Montiero hailed the news that State Police Major Darnell Weaver will take over as Lt. Col. and Deputy Superintendent, becoming the highest person of color in 1996 history. years of the Rhode Island State Police.

Rhode Island Historical Society executive director C. Morgan Grefe said the society wanted to honor Montiero because he had “made history at every turn.”

Other Rhode Island civil rights leaders, such as Michael S. Van Leesten, and Rhode Island’s first black judge, Alton W. Wiley, have died in recent years. But, she said, “We have the opportunity to hear and learn from those who risked so much to fight to make Rhode Island more equal and to ensure that America is up to the task. its founding ideals. ”

Grefe said that when she saw the 1960s news footage of Montiero, “I was just thinking about how what he says resonates so strongly in our world today and in Rhode Island today. ‘hui. “

Additionally, Grefe said she appreciates that Montiero remains just as passionate about these matters today as he was as a young man. “I think he wants us to learn about the past, to learn from the past, but to act in the present,” she said.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on twitter @FitzProv.

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