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Hosea Williams, 74, Rights Crusader, Dies

DANIEL LEWIS / New York Times 17nov00

Hosea Williams in 1976

When he was jailed, which happened more than 125 times, he often waved it off as "just another attempt to silence Hosea Williams" or to stop his attacks on "the downtown power structure." He once took a traffic conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he lost.

Hosea Williams, a field general for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in civil rights clashes of the 1960's, and more recently an Atlanta politician with a talent for confounding friends and enemies alike, died yesterday in Atlanta. He was 74 and had been suffering from cancer.

Rambunctious, fearless and blunt, Mr. Williams was just the man for a certain kind of work in Dr. King's efforts to desegregate the South. Dr. King called him "my wild man, my Castro," and deployed him as heavy artillery to soften up resistance.

In cities like St. Augustine, Fla., Mr. Williams would recruit volunteers, teach them the elements of nonviolence and exhort them with prayers and shouts of "Freedom now!" Then he would take them on the march in defiance of court orders, armed assault and the prospect of jail.

The theory was that a strong dose of Hosea Williams and his foghorn voice might make white officials more receptive to working something out with the more diplomatic Andrew Young, chief negotiator for Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Council.

Of all the times that Mr. Williams and his associates put themselves in harm's way, it was one afternoon in Selma, Ala., "Bloody Sunday" on March 7, 1965, which shifted the course of national events at a stroke.

The council and local advocates had hoped to lead a group of marchers from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, and to serve Gov. George C. Wallace with petitions demanding voting rights for blacks. By the toss of a coin, Mr. Williams was put at the front of the column alongside John Lewis, who had gone to Selma on his own account; his organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had complained that the council was riding on its coattails and voted not to take part.

Few if any of the several hundred marchers had expected to get very far toward Montgomery on that first day. They had been warned that the police would enforce a federal court order banning the march. They knew that a state trooper had fatally wounded a young black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, in an attack on demonstrators a few nights before.

But even Mr. Williams and Mr. Lewis were not prepared for what they saw as they reached the top of the steeply arched Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River. At the far end, blocking Route 80 out of Selma, dozens of helmeted state troopers equipped with gas masks stood in the road. Behind them was a force of sheriff's deputies in khaki uniforms, and riding among them, a local posse on horseback.

"I am Maj. John Cloud of the Alabama state troopers," came an amplified voice. "This is an unlawful march, and it will not be allowed to continue. You are ordered to disperse. You have two minutes."

Folding the march back on itself could have caused a panic. Going ahead would have been insane. It was decided to kneel and pray. But it was only one minute before the police forces attacked with clubs, bullwhips and tear gas.

Mr. Williams said later that he escaped the initial onslaught by vaulting right over the troopers as they bent to club the fallen or kneeling marchers. Mr. Lewis was beaten unconscious by a trooper and suffered a skull fracture but lived to march again and eventually become a congressman from Georgia.

The crushing of civil rights demonstrations was almost routine by that time. But Selma pierced people's consciousness as nothing had done before. That night, ABC Television interrupted its broadcast of the movie "Judgment at Nuremberg" to show footage from Selma.

A few days later President Lyndon B. Johnson denounced the attack and promised to submit a federal voting rights bill to Congress. He did so, and it was enacted that August. On March 21, meanwhile, Dr. King and 3,500 people from across America set out from Selma under the protection of the National Guard and covered the 50 miles to Montgomery by March 25.

It was one of Dr. King's "ingeniuses," Mr. Williams said, that he found the best use of people's talents. But it was clear that Mr. Williams was born for confrontation; he said so himself, and probably more than anyone else in the hierarchy of Dr. King's council, he believed that shaking up white society was the only sure way to get results.

Before joining with Dr. King in 1963, he had achieved results of his own in Savannah, Ga., where he lived with his family for many years and moved up through the ranks of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He had organized night marches, given speeches and inflamed passions to the point where the white establishment made meaningful concessions.

Mr. Williams became disillusioned, however, when he was told that his family origins would rule out a place on the N.A.A.C.P.'s national board. His parents had not married.

He went to Dr. King in tears. By early 1964, Mr. Williams was helping to run the Southern Christian Leadership Council's operations in St. Augustine.

Mr. Williams was standing on the ground just below the motel balcony when Dr. King was killed in Memphis in 1968. In the civil rights diaspora that followed, he styled himself the true heir to the King legacy of revolution.

Virtually alone among the movement veterans, he continued to hit the pavement. Although he was ousted as executive director of the council in 1979, after forcing the hand of its president, Joseph Lowery, he had established his own political base in Atlanta. He led drives for improved conditions at companies like Coca-Cola and Sears, Roebuck & Company. In his last big hurrah as a street impresario, a campaign demanding jobs and housing for black people in solidly white Forsyth County, Ga., in 1987, he turned out 20,000 marchers after a much smaller group had been pelted with rocks.

Mr. Williams was elected to the Georgia General Assembly in 1974 and served until 1984, when he resigned to run for the United States Senate against the Democrat Wyche Fowler Jr. Mr. Williams threw around accusations of racism, and lost badly.

In 1985 he won a seat on the Atlanta City Council, and after one term, served for several years as a De Kalb County commissioner.

Over the years his behavior as a public personality grew startling. The man who estimated that he been jailed 125 times for championing civil rights piled up more than 25 arrests for traffic violations, including two charges of leaving the scenes of accidents that led to prison sentences.

When friends tried to suggest that he might have a drinking problem, he shot back that they had joined the people persecuting him for his defiance of the establishment and his work on behalf of the poor.

He did work for the poor; among other things, for about 30 years he organized holiday dinners that fed as many as 40,000 destitute and homeless people in a day.

At the same time, there were questions about the finances of some of his operations including the Martin Luther King Jr. People's Church of Love that he founded in 1972 with himself as pastor (he had long since affixed a "reverend" to his name for gravitas). A study by The Atlanta Constitution showed that the church, which had no sanctuary, was most visible as the co-sponsor of Georgia's largest bingo operation, grossing as much as $400,000 a year in conjunction with subsidiaries that often filed no tax returns.

Mr. Williams's wife, the former Juanita Terry, died this year. A son, Hosea II, died of leukemia in 1998. He is survived by a daughter, Elisabeth Williams-Omilami.

Hosea Williams was born on Jan. 5, 1926. His mother was a student at a school for the blind in Macon, Ga.; his father, also blind, was a broom- maker. Mr. Williams was reared by his grandparents, Turner and Lela Williams, in Attapulgus, Ga. He said in various interviews that he had to leave town at age 13 after escaping a lynch mob that wanted him for being friendly to a white girl.

Mr. Williams was living in Attapulgus again when the United States entered World War II. He went to enlist in the army, confident of being rejected because of a rheumatic heart. Instead he was given medical treatment and eventually became a staff sergeant in an all-black unit of Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army, working as a weapons carrier. He suffered head wounds and other injuries from a German bomb attack that killed the other 13 men in his group, and spent more than a year recovering in a hospital in Britain.

Back home, Mr. Williams completed high school at age 23, earned a bachelor's degree from Morris Brown College in Atlanta, with a major in chemistry; and then earned his master's degree from Atlanta University. He became the first black research chemist hired by the federal government south of the Mason-Dixon line.

He and his family lived a comfortable middle-class life in Savannah for more than a decade when things begin to sour. Mr. Williams said he hit a racial ceiling at work; and about the same time, he was beginning to feel guilt and then outrage about the acquiescence of black people like himself. He took to dashing off during his half-hour lunch break to deliver speeches in a downtown park, sometimes still wearing his white lab coat. Eventually, he was arrested and jailed. When he got out, he took a year's leave of absence from the Agriculture Department to do civil rights work. He never went back.

Friends remember Hosea Williams as brave, determined leader


ATLANTA -- Friends of civil rights activist Hosea Williams remember him as a courageous, determined stalwart who continued to contribute to his community even as he battled cancer.

Williams, who died Thursday of cancer at age 74, was prominent in the civil rights movement long after the death of its leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. For three decades, Williams was also known for his annual holiday dinners for the poor, which fed 30,000 last year in Atlanta.

King's widow, Coretta Scott King, lamented Williams' death.

``An irreplaceable giant of the modern-day civil rights movement has fallen,'' she said. ``He fought tirelessly unto his last breath to help the broken, the hurting and the downtrodden have a better life.''

Williams was with King in Memphis, Tenn., helping support striking sanitation workers on April 4, 1968, the night King was assassinated.

During a 1993 interview with The Associated Press, Williams recalled his anger: ``I was wishing I could pull some molecules out of the air and make me a weapon and just wipe out every white person near, because I thought they had shot Dr. King at that time.

``I said to myself, 'America, racists, economic exploiters, you sure have messed up now ... because there lies the only one among us, the main one, who has tried to keep us calm. Now you've killed him.'''

Williams was born Jan. 5, 1926, in Attapulgus, Ga., the illegitimate son of a blind girl who fled a state training school when she discovered she was pregnant. He was raised by his grandparents.

He was badly wounded in Europe during World War II and walked with a cane the rest of his life. When he returned to Georgia, he was beaten bloody while trying to use a whites-only drinking fountain.

During the weeks he spent in a military hospital, he remembered thinking that ``I'd fought on the wrong side.''

Williams earned a master's degree at Atlanta University and taught agricultural chemistry. He recalled his children crying in a Savannah drug store when he told them they could not join white children spinning on soda counter stools because of segregation.

The marches and sit-ins he led in Savannah caught the attention of King and others in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and in 1963 they asked Williams to join them in mobilizing the civil rights movement across the South.

``I, as field director, would go ahead of the others and mobilize the street people in the black communities,'' he recalled. ``Jesse Jackson would come in later and deal with the middle-class blacks and Andy Young would negotiate with the white power structure.''

After the furor of the '60s, Williams' graying, goateed chin and raspy voice were well-known at civil rights meetings and protests. Jailed more than 125 times, he often waved off incarceration as ``just another attempt to silence Hosea Williams.''

Williams later entered politics, serving as a state representative, Atlanta city councilman and county commissioner.

In Hanoi, Vietnam, early Friday, President Clinton called Williams ``an American foot soldier for freedom.''

Williams walked with Clinton across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., earlier this year to mark the 35th anniversary of ``Bloody Sunday,'' when white troopers and sheriff's deputies used tear gas, nightsticks and whips to break up a civil rights march.

``From his bravery in the fields of battle in World War II, to his leadership in the civil rights struggle at home, Hosea Williams was a profile in courage,'' Clinton said.

Rep. John Lewis, who was beaten badly during the 1965 Selma march, said Williams ``was a man of faith, hope and great courage. He had the capacity to disturb things, speak out, mobilize, agitate for what is right and what was fair.''

Williams cooked his first Thanksgiving dinner for the poor in 1970, feeding 200 people in an Atlanta church. Last year's dinner at Turner Field, which Williams was too ill to attend, was served by Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes and 3,000 other volunteers.

Williams is survived by two sons and four daughters. His wife, Juanita, died in August.

Gore Statement on the Death of Hosea Williams
U.S. Newswire
16 Nov 20:21

Statement by the Vice President on the Death of Dr. Hosea Williams
To: National Desk Contact: White House Press Official, 202-456-7035

WASHINGTON, Nov. 16 /U.S. Newswire/ -- The following was released today by the White House:

Tipper and I were very saddened to hear that Dr. Hosea Williams has passed away. Thirty-five years ago, when he and John Lewis led the march from Selma to Montgomery, Hosea Williams moved our nation closer to the dream of racial equality and civil rights for all. On that "Bloody Sunday," the marchers endured brutal attacks by segregationists. But their courage and sacrifice inspired people across the land to support changes in the law that have helped to transform the lives of millions of Americans.

We have not reached all the goals set for us by Dr. Williams and Martin Luther King and other civil rights pioneers. We need to do more to achieve the kind of social and economic justice and equal opportunity for which they fought so hard. But in that struggle for justice, we continue to find inspiration in their devotion and their deeds. We are inspired, too, by the example of Dr. Williams' daughter, Elisabeth Williams-Omilami, who announced that she will lead her father's holiday charity dinners in Atlanta.Hosea's Feed the Hungry and Homeless project provides meals to tens of thousands of poor families on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

When those in power stood in Dr. Williams' way, he would sometimes dismiss their efforts by saying it was "just another attempt to silence Hosea Williams." His feisty spirit might be saying that now. But so long as the stories of Selma and countless other battles for civil rights are told, Hosea Williams will not be silent. His call to provide for the poor -- with food, with housing and with true and lasting justice -- will continue to be heard, loud and clear.

Tipper and I offer our prayers for the family of Hosea Williams. May God's mercy and their memories of Dr. Williams many good deeds sustain them in this difficult time.

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