Felton Williams. Courtesy the Long Beach Unified School District.

At last week’s Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education meeting, Board Member Felton Williams shared the emotional story of his brother’s death in 1970 while in police custody. Williams said he has not often talked about his brother’s death publicly but he felt compelled to share the story because of the widespread protests against police brutality following the death of George Floyd.

Williams is retiring at the end of this term, concluding 16 years on the board. He is the only African-American member of the LBUSD’s Board and is a longtime leader with the local NAACP. You can view Williams’ statement at the 2:16:15 mark in a recording of the June 2 board meeting, or read a transcription here:

I want to share something that’s very personal to me, and I don’t talk about this a lot. In 1970 I lost a brother who was in Santa Ana to sell some property and his car stalled. They tried to issue a citation and he refused to sign it so they took him and he went to jail.

While in jail there was a struggle with 3 sheriff’s deputies and he was strangled to death. I don’t talk a lot about this, I keep it personal. As a 19-year-old I had just gotten out of the service. He had gone to Santa Ana to sell some property so he could go back to school with me; we were going to go to school together.

His refusal to sign a traffic citation, he wound up in jail and eventually he got into a struggle during booking and he was choked to death. They took him back to his cell and basically said that he had died while he was in his cell. The other prisoners who saw it testified that he did not die in his cell.

As a 19-year-old who had just gotten out of military service I had to take care of the matter for my family. That, going to school full time, working full time and having to deal with that issue, it was devastating to me. It was difficult. Each time we see a situation like this, it reminds me of what happened to my brother.

My brother was a star athlete at San Pedro High School, well-liked by the people in San Pedro. And because of that his story got a lot of attention, it just did not die out. KNXT came in and did an editorial on his death, the fact that would he have been helped and his car towed if he were not black? (A journalist) came in and profiled the family repeatedly just to show that my brother grew up in a nice home in a nice neighborhood, was a prolific artist, and at 20 years old he lost his life.

So these kinds of incidents resonate very strongly with me. And at some point they need to stop. The coroner’s inquest held the sheriff’s deputies culpable in the death of my brother. Very quickly the city re-organized; Santa Ana incorporated the coroner’s office and came back with a second ruling that the police officers were not responsible for his death. It was devastating for my family and for me.

In looking at these kinds of situations as they transpire, what needs to happen is something very definable at this moment, and that’s that we have accountability in law enforcement. I don’t really feel that all officers and individuals in law enforcement are problematic. As president of the NAACP in San Pedro I applauded many police officers for their work over the years.

We do have a system in place that we need to take some dramatic measures and steps to correct, how this system profiles African-Americans and does not maintain accountability in the process. Otherwise we’ll continue to see these situations go on and on and on. Suffice to say that we need to take a serious look at how we bring this under control and again, as I said, I don’t share this openly with people; it’s very, very personal to me. My brother was very close to me, and I just want to get to a point where we can see this thing begin to stop.