Marion Woods, whose life was so dedicated to the pursuit of civil rights and economic justice that his friends described him as “Sacramento’s Martin Luther King Jr.,” died Wednesday after suffering a heart attack. He was 87.
“I am just heartbroken,” said Sam Starks, who annually organizes Northern California’s largest MLK march as executive director of MLK365. “He was my living King. He knew King. He went to school with King. A few of us have the knowledge of King, but he had the sensibilities of King and the … commonsense of King.”
Woods was graduated from Morehouse College in the same class as King. He would go on to hold many impressive positions over a career in government service. He was the director of the California Department of Benefit Payments, director of the California Department of Social Services, and for the District of Columbia, the director of the Department of Human Resources.
“He’s done so much,” Starks said, “but he was so humble.”
Lynnis Woods-Mullins, the eldest of Woods’ three daughters, said her father often told them that he grew up poor, but he didn’t know it. Woods’ father was a school principal, and his mother, a teacher, she said, and they and their three children lived in Marietta, Georgia, under Jim Crow laws and after desegregation.
Once schools were integrated, Woods’ father won election to school board president, Woods-Mullins said, and his parents were active in their community life, providing a legacy for him to uphold. After Morehouse, he enrolled in officer’s school in the Air Force, she said, and he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Woods, however, was more likely to omit his rank and simply tell people that he was a cockpit navigator, Starks said.
The Woodses’ longtime neighbor Clifton West III said Woods had a unique combination of a humble heart and a fertile mind.
“The thing I remember about him was that he was so humble but did so much that you would never know,” West said. “Whatever it was he was doing had to do with the furthering of justice in mankind. He was a long-distance runner for justice. He was an ultra-marathon runner of justice, and that legacy is what he leaves behind for people like me.”
After finishing his military service at Travis Air Force Base, Woods settled in Freeport with his first wife, Bertha Virginia Woods, whom he had met while he was a student at Atlanta’s Morehouse and she was a student at nearby Spellman College. The couple hired an architect and built their home in south Sacramento, Woods-Mullins said.
Their longtime neighbor, Dr. Bill Bronston, recalled that, although Woods was well-educated, he had to take a job as a waiter at the Sutter Club when he first left the military. It was there that he served Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown and his chief lieutenants, Bronston said, and they were so impressed by Woods that they told him to apply for a position in state government. He did so, rose through the ranks and ultimately was appointed as a department director during the first gubernatorial term for Gov. Jerry Brown.
It was there, roughly 40 years ago, when Shawn Ortiz became Woods’ public information officer, and the two men would become lifelong friends. Ortiz recalled Woods as an egalitarian leader who sought insight from his deputies and used their advice to shape decisions.
Woods met social challenges with compassion and optimism, Ortiz said. He felt strongly that California would benefit from the influx of Southeast Asian refugees who fled Vietnam following the fall of Saigon, Ortiz said, though that was not a universally held belief at the time.
“He was in the forefront of arguing that they certainly had a place in America,” Ortiz said, “that they were more than immigrants, that they were here as a result of their support for American foreign policy in Southeast Asia and as a result of the loss of the Vietnam War. He was out front with that.”
Woods also advocated for changes to child welfare policies that would protect children but emphasize family reunification, reforms that came after foster child Danny Balfour died as a result of abuse, Ortiz said, and he advocated and secured state funds to help ease the impact of federal welfare reforms during the Reagan Administration.
In the two weeks before his passing, Bronston and Starks said, Woods was phoning them and talking about ways to level the playing field for the poor and for people of color.
Woods-Mullins, a Fair Oaks resident, said her father had an expectation that his daughters do their best at whatever task was before them but that he was not a stern taskmaster. As new generations were born to their family, she said, Woods made a point of spending time with each of his seven grandchild and three great-grandchild to ensure they had memories of him.
Woods was preceded in death by his first wife, then an administrator with the Sacramento City Unified School District, in 1989 after her car was struck broadside by a fire truck. In addition to Woods-Mullins, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Woods is survived by his wife Elizabeth Stansberry Woods; daughters Lisa Woods of Los Angeles and Leslie Woods-Perry of Sacramento, his brother Lorenzo Woods of Marietta, Georgia, and his sister LaVerne Jackson of Sacramento.
Memorial service set
Woods’ memorial service will be at 11 a.m. May 21 at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, 3996 14th Ave., in Sacramento.