By Elizabeth Anne Brown
Sylvester Williams, a fiery pastor known for his unapologetically un-PC take on politics, joined fellow Durham mayoral hopefuls at a Sept. 14 candidate forum. There, Williams railed against what he perceives to be the city’s Achilles’ heel—deep-seated institutional racism—and outlined his plans for building a better Durham.
After quickly correcting the moderator during his introduction (“Pastor Sylvester Williams,” not Mr.), Williams faced the audience with a tight-lipped smirk, raising his eyebrows and flashing conspiratorial glances at the front row whenever another candidate made a point he disagreed with—which happened frequently.
Unlike fellow candidates and city council insiders Farad Ali and Steve Schewel, Williams was unabashedly critical of Durham city government’s handling of racial inequality issues. At the top of his list is the lack of resources and face time with politicians that Durham’s more troubled neighborhoods receive. “We have elected officials who don’t step foot in places without a photo op,” Williams charged.
After a nod to the success of Durham’s recent downtown renaissance, Williams questioned why the city lavished funds and attention on the development of such a small region—especially in light of tremendous need in adjacent Durham communities.
Given that Durham has a higher poverty rate than the state of North Carolina and the United States at large, tax breaks for tapas bars and new brunch spots is absurd, Williams wrote in a candidate questionnaire. During the forum, he objected, “Anytime you consider giving money to poor neighborhoods it’s considered welfare, but the same money going downtown is considered investment,”
Reinvigorating the once-sluggish Durham nightlife scene does little to help the city’s most vulnerable residents and exacerbates runaway gentrification, according to Williams. Rising property values in newly trendy neighborhoods can push out low-income residents and leave them without affordable housing options. Most consider gentrification a tragic product of market forces—but Williams suggested gentrification in Durham is purposeful and fueled by racism.
During the forum, Williams accused realtors of “intentionally [setting] prices high” on downtown property “in order to keep certain people out,” citing conversations with an unnamed but respected real estate insider.
As Durham tackles its billion-dollar infrastructure backlog, racial equity can no longer take a back seat to progress, Williams said. He pointed to the East End Connector as an example of how infrastructure projects, particularly those that invoke eminent domain, are disproportionally placed in low-income, African-American neighborhoods. Everyone reaps the benefits of the project, but it’s poor communities of color that bear the burden.
It’s for similar reasons that Williams staunchly opposes the proposed light rail from Durham to Chapel Hill. Using existing railway infrastructure would only serve to “displace minority communities once again”—and Durham’s urban sprawl makes buses a more natural solution, he said.
Despite his crusade to protect Durham’s racial minorities, Williams has ruffled feathers with his controversial stance on LGBTQ+ issues. In a candidate questionnaire for the People’s Alliance, a left-leaning Durham PAC, he wrote that “civil rights do not apply to the bedroom” (somehow weaving in some shots at J. Edgar Hoover, former FBI director who was rumored to crossdress, as an unconventional stand-in for the queer community). At the forum, Williams largely ducked a question on his ability to work with a sexually diverse Durham. However, he did mention in passing that since “it’s not genetic,” we have yet to identify “what causes those problems.”
Williams’ other public comments on the subject have been more explicit. In another joint appearance on September 18, Williams seemed to mock fellow mayoral candidate Shea Ramirez for having a gay daughter. That same day, a post shared on his personal Facebook page (“Pastor Sylvester Williams”) lamented, “1 of every 2 blacks in Durham is struggling to climb out of poverty. Makes LGBT struggle seem silly, eh? (sic)”. A September 23 status update included “homosexuals” in a list with “prostitutes… drunkards, homeless, unemployed, [and] gangbangers” that his mayoral campaign helped “[break] under the power of God.”
As much as people hate to admit it, “the preacher is dead on the money most of the time,” said Jackie Wagstaff, a former city council member with a reputation as a firebrand. She said Williams “understands [the] disconnect in Durham between the haves and the have-nots,” and too often “people sit in these seats that don’t really focus on the needs of all the people in Durham.”