Election Section

Civil rights leader Hosea Williams dies at 74

The Associated Press
Friday November 17, 2000

ATLANTA — Hosea Williams, the fiery lieutenant to Martin Luther King Jr. who was at the forefront of the civil rights struggle for more than three decades, died of cancer Thursday. He was 74. 

Williams died at Atlanta’s Piedmont Hospital, where he was admitted for an infection Oct. 20. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and had a cancerous kidney removed last year. 

“We were with him when he was absent with body and were present when the Lord took him,” said Williams’ daughter, Elisabeth Williams-Omilami. “He was selfless. What he did for this earth will now reveal itself because the fruit of the seeds he sowed will begin to emerge.” 

The chief organizer of King’s marches and demonstrations, Williams helped lead the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Ala., in 1965. He was also at the Memphis, Tenn., motel where King was shot in 1968. 

He recalled his anger that day during a 1993 interview with The Associated Press: “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.” He continued: “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.”’ The shot, he said, ended King’s dream because it fragmented his lieutenants. 

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 grandfather, whom he described as a tough man who had killed at least three people, including one on church steps on a Sunday morning. 

A drifter who held odd jobs across Florida, Williams wound up in the Army, was badly wounded in Europe and returned to Georgia, where he was beaten bloody while trying to use a whites-only drinking fountain at a bus station in Americus. 

During the next five weeks in a military hospital, he recalled, he kept thinking “I’d fought on the wrong side.” 

Williams later finished high school and Morris Brown College, teaching agricultural chemistry before joining the civil rights movement. 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 rules. 

He became King’s advance man throughout the South during the 1960s. 

“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.” 

Williams helped lead the 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. All-white Alabama state troopers and sheriff’s deputies used tear gas, nightsticks and whips to break up the march protesting the denial of voting rights to blacks. 

Two decades later, Williams led a march into virtually all-white Forsyth County north of Atlanta and was greeted by Ku Klux Klansmen and sympathizers throwing bottles and rocks. 

As he ducked the projectiles, he recalled, he was thinking of King. 

“I know that old rascal was just a-laughin’. Yeah, old King just a-layin’ there in that grave. He was just tickled to death. Old Hosea is still trying,” Williams said. 

His graying, goateed chin and raspy voice became fixtures at meetings and protests. In 1977, he was ousted as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by then-President Joseph Lowery in a power struggle. Officially, the reason was that he was not devoting full time to the job. It took a court order to get Williams to vacate his office. 

He was arrested twice on charges of trying to carry a gun aboard an airliner. One charge was dropped and Williams pleaded no contest to the other. He also had driving convictions. 

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. 

Williams scorned most elected black officials, whom he accused of turning their backs on the American poor. His following was strongest among older blacks, many of whom weathered the 1960s with him. 

Williams later entered politics, serving as a state representative, Atlanta city councilman and DeKalb County commissioner before retiring from politics in 1994. He also operated a company that specialized in cleaning supplies and a bonding company. 

Williams managed to stay in the public eye through his holiday dinners for the poor, which fed thousands each year, and through ’60s-style symbolic gestures, such as jailhouse fasts or camping out atop King’s tomb. The dinners are run, for now, by his daughter. 

Williams’ wife, Juanita Williams, died Aug. 23 of a form of anemia at the age of 75. Their son, Hosea Williams II, was 43 when he died of a rare form of leukemia in 1998.