For 14 years Jeanetta Williams has served as president of the Salt Lake chapter of the NAACP, a position that has earned her honors — and enemies.

That isn't surprising, given her position. What might be surprising is that her major critics come from within; they are from the black community.

Observers say she enjoys being in the spotlight as a public figure and is quick to claim credit, but she is also aloof, maintaining a veil of secrecy about herself.

Often wary, she has been known to call reporters after a news story appears and scold them for not using more of her quotes and fewer quotes from other sources.

It took nearly a year to arrange an in-depth interview with her. After answering initial phone calls and agreeing to the interview, she stopped returning calls. Then she returned a call earlier this year and agreed to meet. After the meeting, she again didn't return calls.

She arrived a half-hour late for the interview and from the start was reluctant to answer even the most basic questions.

"I don't like to get into a whole lot of personal stuff on myself," Williams says. She says she's cautious because she has had threats on her life.

With some urging, though, she gives the barest answers to simple questions about her youth, family, education, etc.

She grew up in a small Oklahoma town called Boley. Her father was a construction worker. Her mother died when Jeanetta was a girl.

Her husband, Thomas Williams, died in 1985 of what she says was a rare lung disease. They had one daughter together.

Williams says she has remarried. Asked about claims by disapproving black peers who say she is not married and that she merely lives with a man, she pauses and replies, "Well — I'm more married than not."

Her partner is Ed Lewis, president of a tri-state area for the NAACP that includes Utah, Idaho and Nevada. In other words, he's Williams' boss.

Williams attended Idaho State University because she had friends in the Pocatello area and took a job with the telephone company US WEST. Her employer transferred her to Salt Lake City in 1988. She now works for the Utah Transit Authority in community relations.

She became involved in the NAACP while in Pocatello. She says this did not stem from any personal experience with racism but because "it was a civil rights organization that I always had heard about, and I wanted to be involved."

Besides working at UTA and serving as NAACP president — which she says is nearly a full-time job, without compensation — she attends school. Since the fall of 2004, she has pursued a master's degree in business management at the University of Phoenix.

"I thought it was a good thing to do," she says. Her evenings are filled with classes, papers and research. "I sneak in a little NAACP work in the evenings," she says.

And that is about all she reveals about herself.

What she is eager to do is send e-mail to a reporter containing a couple of "articles" about herself, one of which is a puff piece written for AdNewsonline.com that begins, "When Jeanetta Williams met President Nelson Mandela, he wept as he shook her hand and thanked her for the good work she is doing with the NAACP."

Later, the unidentified writer makes this grandiose statement: "She stands for justice, opportunity, goodness in all and equality. Her belief is pure and grants power in all she does."

Upon request, Williams riffs through a list of her accomplishments while in office.

She led efforts to change the name of Human Rights Day in Utah to Martin Luther King Holiday. "It was my idea," she says. "I contacted legislators to get sponsors. There was a lot of lobbying late at night."

She gave her support to a successful effort to name a street in West Jordan after the late Rosa Parks, as well as other streets around the valley. She persuadedconvinced Parks herself to visit Salt Lake City a few years ago to receive the chapter's Rosa Parks Award.

"She didn't like to travel to cold areas in the winter, but I kept being persistent," Williams says. "She kept saying, 'Let me think about it.' I kept calling her back. I told her about the mountains and scenery. Lo and behold, when she came we had the inversion. She stayed an extra day because it was my birthday, and she took me to dinner and gave me gifts and a card and flowers. I talked to her for hours at a time."

Williams, who served on the NAACP's national board of directors from 1996-2002, says that under her leadership the NAACP's Salt Lake chapter has filed class-action lawsuits against Fruit Heights, Bluffdale and Summit County over zoning ordinances because "those areas have large lots and there is no affordable housing." She says her office fields 10 to 15 calls, e-mails and letters a day with complaints of racism. Williams says her office monitors prisons, housing, education and employment, looking for discrimination.

Recently, she undertook the high-profile case of Alvin Itula, who died after being Tasered by police.

Williams says she would give Utah a "D" for the way it handles discrimination "because, for instance, a person filing a discrimination lawsuit in employment has no opportunity of winning a case in Utah because the judges favor the employer. And there is a glass ceiling.

"There's a good-ol'-boys system here. I'm speaking just of African-Americans.

"Our congressmen, except (Jim) Matheson, all receive F's for their voting in civil rights and voting with the NAACP. That is unacceptable.

"That's why there's a lot of work that needs to be done here."

Her opponents don't disagree with her; they just don't believe she's the one to do it.

After moving to Salt Lake City, Williams was groomed for NAACP leadership by longtime president Alberta Henry, who was seen as a kindly, maternal figure in the community.

Later, after Williams became president, she and Henry had such a falling out that Henry tried to reclaim the office in 2002 at the age of 82 but lost a controversial election.

Henry died last year. She would not discuss Williams for an article written by Don Merrill in 2002 for Salt Lake City Weekly but did comment about how people were feeling about the organization under Williams' leadership:

"They mad at it," she said. "Ooooh, they mad!"

They're still mad.

"I am so disgusted with that group under her that I refuse to have anything to do with them," says Ron Stallworth, a former chairman of Utah's Black Advisory Council. "I do not support (Williams and Lewis). The NAACP is a necessary, viable group. I do not think that of them. Everyone recognizes she is wrong, but nobody wants to challenge her. I've been very outspoken about how wrong she and Ed are."

James Evans, chairman of the Salt Lake County Republican Party, who also happens to be black, says, "Nothing is being accomplished with the organization. ... People in the African-American community are frustrated."

"She should be a recognized leader in the black community, but she's not representative of the black community," says Charles Henderson, a longtime NAACP member who serves on the Minority Advisory Committee and the Martin Luther King Commission.

There also has been frequent turnover on the NAACP Salt Lake chapter board. Two of the most enduring members, Allen Holmes and Curley Jones, refused to be interviewed. Lewis explains that this is a matter of NAACP policy — only the president can speak for the group.

Charlotte Starks, a former NAACP vice president, said, "I'd rather not talk about my experience at the Salt Lake branch of the NAACP. It wasn't a great experience. I'd just like it to support people who can't support themselves. It doesn't do it."

When contacted at her home in California, Bonnie Dew, a former member of the Salt Lake NAACP board, said, "Is there something positive happening there? I don't think there is. I'm skeptical anything will change."

She believes Williams needs to be taken "to task for misusing the power of the office and the name and not respecting those before her. It just breaks my heart to have this happen and her continued leadership. The community would be much better served with someone new at the helm, someone like Charles (Henderson) and Larry (Houston) and Alberta. I challenge you to find someone who believes Jeanetta embodies the values of a leader of the NAACP. It's more about personal gain and notoriety that she serves and not as instrument to bring change."

Dew was one of four board members who resigned within weeks of each other in 1997, along with Leslie Reynolds, Henry and Houston.

"Jeanetta has done some good things in economic development and putting time in the national arena," says Houston, "but I disagree with the way they're serving our community. In our community, African-Americans have been abandoned by the NAACP."

Unlike others who spoke on the record, Josie Valdez says she had "a productive experience" with Williams while serving on the NAACP board for five years. As assistant director of the Small Business Administration at the time, she joined the NAACP to facilitate the creation of business opportunities for minority-owned businesses.

"We got a lot done," she says. "Jeanetta was very instrumental in making that happen."

Valdez notes, "She is and was very controversial. I knew that going in. I had heard a lot of negative things. But my experience was a good one, even though I saw firsthand the tremendous division that exists between Jeanetta and the rest of the black community. I saw her as an effective leader with the limitations of a divided community. ... I must have been one of the few. She never rubbed me the wrong way."

Also rising to Williams' defense, Lewis says, "There's only one side; there's the NAACP side. These people who are complaining don't come to the meetings and don't participate."

Lewis says the Salt Lake branch is "one of the best in the NAACP and by far the best in my tri-state area."

Several consistent themes emerge as Williams' critics speak out:

One claim is that Williams and company will not grant NAACP help to people who are not dues-paying members of the organization.

"That's totally false," says Williams. "That's how people start lies. You don't have to be a member for the NAACP to help you. You get people who always want to be negative and stir things up."

Williams' denial notwithstanding, it's difficult to ignore a charge that is so widely repeated. "It's always been a concern," says Houston. "The first thing they ask when someone calls is, are you a member? Membership is the blood line for certain, but the NAACP addresses issues and civil liberties whether you're a member or not."

"I can attest to the fact personally," says Stallworth. "I had an incident with my former employer trying to fire me. I appealed to the NAACP for support. I was told that as soon as I paid my membership dues they would get their lawyers on this. That's contrary to the NAACP (mission)."

Says Dew, "I would get calls from people telling me,'(Williams) won't respond because I'm not a member.' (Williams) denies it. But there were people who were refused help because of membership."

Lewis says none of this is true and that usually membership isn't the issue. He says the NAACP receives frequent calls from people who want help with an issue that has nothing to do with civil rights.

"I get a call from someone saying, 'My son is in jail. Will you get him out?' I say, 'Why is he in jail?' 'Robbery,' they say. Fifty, 60 percent of the time it's not even a civil rights issue! Ninety percent of the time they're not even members, and they're demanding our help!"

Another charge is that Williams will not cooperate with other individuals and organizations in the black community. That issue came to a head about a year and a half ago when the Martin Luther King Human Rights Commission solicited funds in the community to raise scholarship money for minority kids. Williams filed a complaint with the Utah Attorney General's Office claiming that they were illegally competing for the same funds and taking potential NAACP dollars.

This rankled other black leaders, who saw it as counterproductive for a group whose purpose was to help minority youth.

According to Henderson, the AG's office told them no laws were violated and that they needed to work together to mend the rift. As a compromise, Henderson says the commission tried to get Williams to meet and agree to split the scholarship, but she refused.

"The NAACP does not take direction from other organizations or churches," says Williams. "We have our own policies."

Says Henderson, "We're not trying to tell them what to do. We just want to work together for the betterment of the community. I was a member of the NAACP in Utah and Virginia, and I can tell you it has always worked with other organizations to solve problems. It's Jeanetta's way or no way, and her way is not working."

"We were raising 20 scholarships a year at $1,000 each for high-achievement students in the black community," says Stallworth. "We did this every year. (The AG's office) said she should work with us. She never has and never would. She chooses to go it alone. She views (working with other groups) as a threat to her authority."

The rift in the black community has become so onerous that on several occasions local black leaders have tried to organize a meeting with Williams to attempt to mend the rift.

"We had several meetings to resolve the rift and decide how to bring the NAACP to the table," says Henderson. "We knew we were getting a bad reputation for not getting along. She refused to come to the meetings."

The Rev. France Davis and Phyllis Carruth, director of the Martin Luther King Commission, were among those who were asked to mediate. So far, their efforts have been rebuffed.

"I'm still working on it," says the Rev. Davis. "I don't want to close the doors." Asked to comment on Williams' performance, he says, "I don't have any comment on that at this point."

Says Carruth, "I don't want to say anything to close doors. We're still working on things. But there are some communication issues."

Lewis blames much of this issue on Williams' policy of turning the NAACP from a group dominated by blacks to a group that represents all races in matters of civil rights.

"They want it to be a black thing," says Lewis. "We fight for the civil rights of everyone."

He also defends the chapter's refusal to work with other black groups by saying the NAACP, as a nonprofit group, cannot affiliate with partisan groups. The Utah Black Forum, for instance, was headed by Democratic state legislator Duane Bourdeaux. And they can't affiliate with government groups because it is the government they often take on in the courtroom on civil rights issues. Whatever the reason, Williams' independence and refusal to cooperate with others has created many of her problems in the community.

"She's self-reliant, not inclusive," says Valdez. "It has created a lot of animosity. It's the style she has adopted, her modus operandi. She knows she's not loved by everybody. She's got to know it. But in spite of it, she keeps getting re-elected."

Critics also say there needs to be more financial disclosure in the local NAACP under Williams' leadership.

"When I left there hadn't been an official audit since Miss Henry left," says Houston. "There should be independent audits regarding funds."

Says Dew, another former board member, "I was trying to keep things accountable. Jeanetta would not account for it. She wouldn't even tell me how many members the chapter has. That should be public information. It's a nonprofit group that collects money. We should know where it's going. There should be a proper accounting of funds, and so we asked questions. She was very reluctant to provide the information."

Williams' relationship with Lewis is also viewed as problematic. Ask Houston why he resigned and he says, "It was being dominated by two people, Ed and Jeanetta. It was no longer a board. It was a very closed loop."

"Everyone was very supportive at first," says Dew. "Then she paired up with Ed Lewis and started antagonizing members of the board. She was disrespectful to Alberta and changed the direction of the NAACP from a community advocate."

Lewis, 58, was born in Mississippi and grew up in Chicago. (He describes himself as a "country boy from Chicago.") Lewis says he served six years in the Air Force as a nuclear weapons specialist, including a stint in Vietnam, and then attended college. He says he has degrees in engineering and physics and an MBA from Pepperdine. He says he is now working on a doctorate. His career brought him to Utah. (He worked for Bell Labs and Motorola, among other corporations.)

After retiring, Lewis says he became more active in the NAACP as payback for his success. He met Williams through their NAACP work.

Williams' detractors say her personal relationship is a conflict of interest. But, says Lewis, "There is no rule in the NAACP that two people who are married can't serve together. I was elected president of the tri-state area by disparate branches, not Jeanetta."

However, opponents note that all complaints about Williams and the local NAACP go to Lewis.

That includes complaints about the 2002 election. The anti-Williams' camp mounted a campaign to unseat her. Henry returned to run against Williams and lost a close race that was dogged for months by widespread charges of voter fraud.

Henderson, as a member of the election supervisory committee, witnessed the voting.

"There were people voting there who had never been to a meeting," he says. "Some of them didn't even speak English. They were Polynesians. You have to be a member to vote. I had gone to all the meetings and had never seen them. I heard one ask, 'Who do I vote for?' There were memberships purchased for people. Obviously, if they're buying members, who are they going to support?"

Says Dew, "Charles was a witness. He wrote a complaint alleging voter fraud, along with others. Of course, the complaint goes to Ed Lewis.

"He drafted a letter, saying there was no fraud. It went no further. A complaint was filed in behalf of Alberta Henry saying there was fraud. What happened was there was a Tongan church down the street from the voting place. If you happened to be there, you were thinking, 'Where did they come from?' We'd never seen them before. Some were not able to speak the language or write, and Ed was pointing and telling them, put your mark here. The results were very telling. Jeanetta won, but in instructing the nonmembers, they didn't tell them to vote for her vice chairperson, so Alberta's vice chair was voted in. They forgot to tell them to vote for both."

Lewis says simply, "There was no election fraud." He continues, "We're not violating any rules. They're welcome to go over my head if they need to. The complaints have lacked merit."

Williams doesn't plan to step down anytime soon from her NAACP post. Duane Bourdeaux, who recently retired as a state legislator, urges others to support her.

"I know people have concerns," he says. "It's not my job to criticize. There are positive things she's done, too. The thing I always say — and I get asked this a lot — is we've got to do everything we can to support her."

Houston thinks there's another solution: "There needs to be term limits. You can be effective for only so long. You need a change after 10 years. It's the right thing to do."


E-mail: drob@desnews.com