The Civil Rights Leader
by Carolyn Shea
Last year, when boycott-Arizona fever seized the nation in the wake of the state's controversial new immigration law, Rev. Oscar Tillman '87 took a different, and to some, surprising position. Rev. Tillman is president of the Maricopa County NAACP, the organization that addresses civil rights not only in the county—which embraces Phoenix, Arizona's capital city—but also throughout the rest of the state. As a second-term member of the NAACP's National Board of Directors—and the first to come from Arizona—Tillman urged the board not to support a statewide boycott.
He took flack for his stance, especially from certain Hispanic groups, but he stood firm. His argument, after all, was based on personal, on-the-ground knowledge: "I'm out there talking daily to hotel workers and others who have suffered from job losses and foreclosures," he asserts. "If we started losing conventions and business, more of those people would be affected."
For the record, Rev. Tillman opposes Senate Bill 1070, which requires police to demand "papers" from people they suspect are not authorized to be in the U.S. Like many others, he says the directive could result in racial profiling. He also maintains that it poses difficulties for the police. A former military police officer himself, he believes law enforcement resources should be put into crime fighting. "Police shouldn't be turned into federal immigration agents," he says. "Security is jeopardized when victims or witnesses to crime are afraid to talk to police because they might be targeted by this law."
Aside from these issues, he feels the immigration law has hurt the state's image. But he insists that the most effective way to deal with the statute is judicially. "We need to see this through the courts," he says. To date, the law is being challenged on several fronts, including by the national NAACP and the U.S. Department of Justice, which have both filed lawsuits against it.
Rev. Tillman, who is 67 years old, has spent more than a third of his life in NAACP leadership roles, at county, state, regional and national levels. He got his start as president of the chapter in Tacoma, where he settled after a 23-year law enforcement career in the Air Force and decided to get his undergraduate degree at Evergreen. He studied criminal justice and political administration while simultaneously raising his three children—Sharon, Mazuba and Gregory—with his wife, Sheila; working in security; and serving on local school boards. How did he do it all? "I look back on it now and can't even tell you how!" he says.
After graduating, he went to the Tacoma Theological Seminary and became a Baptist minister, influenced by the childhood experience of being chosen at age 9 to take minutes for the meetings of his church's board of deacons (many of whom could neither read nor write). During this period, he worked closely with the pastor of his church. "It was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life. We had a minister who was very well educated and taught me a lot," he says. "In my high school yearbook, I wrote that I would love to teach religion. Later, I wanted to get back involved with the church. Today, it's totally intertwined with what I do." Today as the assistant pastor at Berean Church in Phoenix, he visits hospitals, does funerals and baptisms, and counsels parishioners through difficult situations.
Rev. Tillman and his wife relocated to Phoenix when she got a job transfer. Eight months later, he was elected president of the local NAACP. In addition to education, get-out-the-vote and other initiatives, the organization handles more than 400 civil rights cases a month, involving everything from job and housing discrimination to police brutality. Because he so often sticks out his neck for those who have been victimized by bigotry and intolerance, he is no stranger to criticism and even threats, which he considers the fruits of ignorance. He has learned how to deal with these aspects of his job, and he soldiers on, buoyed by his training as a military investigator and his passion for equity. One local reporter called him "a junkyard dog" for his perseverance in getting to the bottom of a discrimination complaint. "If I ever write a book," says Tillman, "I'll make that the title."
Rev. Tillman's sense of justice was roused while he was a child growing up in North Carolina, "the segregated South, seeing how unfairly people were treated." He remembers an experience his father, a trucker, had being targeted, followed, and wrongly ticketed by a police officer deeply impressed him. "The cop said my dad was speeding. It was a lie. I felt this was so wrong that just because of your race and your position you can do this."
A recent cancer survivor, Rev. Tillman has no plans to stop fighting for racial equality. In 2012, he will run for his third term on the NAACP's national board, and he will remain a prominent champion for minorities and the poor in Arizona.