27th Conference by the Racial Reconciliation Community Outreach Network Begins Thursday in Tucson

A.E. Araiza / Arizona Daily Star Martha Wills, far right, her husband William and family members are preparing for the upcoming conference, a collaboration of organizations, ministries and churches.
A.E. Araiza / Arizona Daily Star
Martha Wills, far right, her husband William and family members are preparing for the upcoming conference, a collaboration of organizations, ministries and churches.

The day after their son’s funeral, Martha and William Wills stepped into his shoes to put on the 27th conference by the Racial Reconciliation Community Outreach Network.

He would have wanted it that way.

Their son, the Rev. William O. Wills Jr., started the conference in 1987 out of a desire to see racial and cultural unity among Tucson’s churches.

The Willses, now in their 80s, expect hundreds of people to attend the 29th conference that kicks off on Thursday. For two years they have continued without their son to carry on his legacy.

And Tucson is better for it.

•••

Although Martha Wills, 86, grew up in church, she never gave much thought to the interplay between Christian communities and race.

She attended a segregated school and learned to “stay in your place … because you didn’t want to fight, didn’t want to get killed.”

After becoming a licensed practical nurse, she met William while they both served in the U.S. Air Force. His childhood, unlike hers, inspired their son.

Growing up in New York City, William participated in a church outreach program that brought together children from New York and Vermont to interact in interracial settings.

“For a lot of people, it was the first time they had any type of relationship with black youth,” William, 83, says of some of the white children. “I don’t think we had any preconceived notions, basically because our schools were integrated.”

William’s career in the Air Force took the family around the country and to England. Wherever they went, Martha, who left the service to care for their three children, made her voice heard.

When they were stationed in Great Falls, Montana, in the 1960s, William, a master sergeant at the time, remembers his wife’s fight for a beauty parlor on base that could serve African-American women. At one point, he says, he was pulled aside and told to “control my wife.”

“In Montana, she was very involved in the community and fighting for people’s rights there, especially African-American rights,” says her daughter, Regina Wills, 56. “She has always been involved. If she hears someone needs help, she is there.”

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Source: Arizona Daily Star | Johanna Willett

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