PROVIDENCE — In the black-and-white news footage from 1968, a television reporter asks Clifford R. Montiero an intriguing question.
“If you had your way, what three things would you do or have done to help not just South Providence but the entire parts of Providence that are suffering from under-employment, inadequate housing?”
Montiero, then a 31-year-old emerging civil rights leader from Providence, provided an answer that seems just as timely and relevant today as it did 53 years ago: He called for decent and affordable housing, job training and opportunities, plus education about Black history.
Now 83 and living in Florida, Montiero on Thursday night was honored as a “History Maker” by the Rhode Island Historical Society, which recognized him for “decades of taking a stand in Rhode Island, working tirelessly to increase access, opportunity and equality.” The presentation was part of a virtual fundraising event titled “Come Together: Taking a Stand in 1960s Rhode Island.”
“Cliff is a living legend,” said Keith Stokes, vice president of the 1696 Heritage Group of Newport, who speaks around the country on early African American heritage and history. “Thank you for making Rhode Island a better place for all of us.”
Montiero led the Rhode Island chapter of the old Congress of Racial Equality and served as president of the NAACP Providence branch. In 2015, he returned to Selma, Ala., to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years to the day after he had marched there with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Thursday’s Zoom event included comments from top public officials such as Democratic US Senator Jack Reed.
“Cliff Montiero has helped bend the arc of history toward justice here in Rhode Island and across the nation,” Reed said. “From sleep-ins at the State House for fair housing, to the marches in Washington and Selma, to the day-to-day effort required to sustain a movement, Cliff has been on the front lines of the fight for equality, justice, and opportunity.”
Democratic US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said people often think of the Civil Rights Movement as taking place in the South, but he said it involved active Rhode Islanders such as Montiero.
“He was down in the South registering voters. He marched with Martin Luther King in Selma. Here in Rhode Island, he slept in at the State House for fair housing,” Whitehouse said. “He has always been at the forefront of change.”
“Mr. Montiero, you have made your mark on the world with an inspirational legacy,” said House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, a Block Island Republican. “You have fomented positive change and created ripples felt today and into the future. If only each of us made the same contributions, our communities and our world would be all the better.”
The video tribute also included historical context from historians, archival footage, and a recent interview with Montiero.
In the 1968 WTEV-TV/Channel 6 news interview, Montiero called for expanding education about Black history.
“I would say the first thing I would do is to have a re-evaluation of our history courses,” he said. “I think it’s very important that the Black community realize its contributions to America and the white community realize the contributions of Black people so we develop an inner pride and respect.”
Those comments echo those made on Tuesday when the state House of Representatives passed a bill requiring that African-American history be taught in Rhode Island schools. The bill’s sponsor, Representative Anastasia P. Williams, a Providence Democrat, talked about the need to teach not only about Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade but also the inventions and contributions that Black Americans have made over the years.
During the 1968 interview, Montiero said, “The second thing would be to have job opportunities, concentrated programs with industry.”
He said he worked closely with former US Senators Claiborne Pell and John O. Pastore on a “manpower program” called the Opportunities Industrialization Center. In 1990, the Community College of Rhode Island acquired the OIC building in South Providence to serve as its Providence campus.
And he said he talked to Pell about the need to provide opportunities for Black people to go to college before the Rhode Island senator launched the federal Pell Grant program.
Montiero told the TV reporter the third thing he’d do “would be to provide adequate and decent housing immediately. And he had been a leading advocate for the Fair Housing Practices Act, which then-Governor John H. Chafee signed in 1965, aiming to prevent race-based housing discrimination.
In TV news footage from the 1965 bill signing, Montiero looks directly into the camera, saying, “All men are created equal, and we want these words to really mean something. We believe in the American dream, and you are part of that American dream.”
Montiero, a former Providence police officer and retired deputy sheriff, has long advocated for greater diversity in law enforcement and the courts. And in an interview on Friday, Montiero hailed the news that State Police Major Darnell Weaver will take over as lieutenant colonel and deputy superintendent, becoming the highest-ranking person of color in the 96-year history of the Rhode Island State Police.
Rhode Island Historical Society executive director C. Morgan Grefe said the society wanted to honor Montiero because he has “made history at every turn.”
Other Rhode Island civil rights leaders, such as Michael S. Van Leesten, and Rhode Island’s first Black judge, Alton W. Wiley, have died in recent years. But, she said, “We have an opportunity to still hear from and learn from the people who risked so much to fight to make Rhode Island more equal and to make America live up to its founding ideals.”
Grefe said that when she saw the 1960s news footage of Montiero, “I was just thinking of the ways in which what he’s saying resonates so strongly with our world today and Rhode Island today.”
Also, Grefe said she appreciates that Montiero remains just as passionate about those issues today as he was as a young man. “I think he wants us to learn about the past, to learn from the past, but to act in the present,” she said.