In Memoriam: Hosea Williams 1926 - 2000

By Sarah Torian

Vol. 22, No. 4, 2000 p. 35

On November 16, 2000, one week to the day before the thirtieth annual Feed the Hungry Thanksgiving dinner that would serve more than 40,000 homeless and low-income Atlantans, lifelong civil rights activist Hosea Williams succumbed to his battle with cancer.

As Andrew Young has said, "The story Hosea tells of the origin of his interest in the movement is typical and remarkable." Born in the small South Georgia town of Attapulgus in 1926 to a blind mother who died in childbirth, Hosea Williams was raised by his grandparents. He left Attapulgus to join the Army during World War II. As a soldier in the 41st Infantry, he came very close to losing his life twice. He believed God had saved him for some purpose that he did not yet know.

On crutches, he started back to Attapulgus by bus. The bus stopped along the way at a segregated bus station where there was no waiting room for black travelers. Williams took a drink from the only water fountain there. A policeman who saw him attacked him for breaking Georgia's segregation laws. It was then that he realized what the Lord had saved him to do-fight racism and segregation.

He began his work in this mission after earning a degree in chemistry at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, getting a job in Savannah as the first African-American chemist South of Washington, D.C. for the Department of Agriculture. In Savannah, he joined the NAACP and became a leader in the expanding protest action against segregation. In the fall of 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. invited him to join the SCLC and organize and coordinate voter registration campaigns on an expanded Southwide scale. As Chief Community Organizer for SCLC, Williams was active in the Freedom Summer campaigns of 1964 and, with John Lewis, he led the Selma-to-Montgomery March on "Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965.

Of Hosea Williams, John Lewis has said, "He had a strong personality. He was a guy who wanted to be out there, who was impatient with meetings and discussions, who tired quickly of analysis. He was the one who would throw up his hands and say people were just talking something to death. What are we going to do?"

Martin Luther King, Jr. said of Williams, "You need some folks like Hosea, who are crazy enough to take on anything and anybody and not count the cost." Williams was with King on the night he was assassinated in Memphis.

In 1974, Williams was elected to the Georgia General Assembly and was later elected to the Atlanta City Council.

In 1988, when the few black families who lived in Forsyth County, Georgia, complained of discrimination and intimidation Williams led a small protest march into the almost all-white county whose white residents had run all black residents from the county in the 1910s. The march led to a violent confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan in which Williams was hit in the head with a brick. The following week, twenty-five thousand protesters from around the nation returned with Williams in a defiant show that such blatant racism would not be accepted in Georgia.

This October, while Williams was confined to his hospital bed, a civil rights reunion was held in his honor in Atlanta. Friends and colleagues who marched and worked with Williams over the years united for a weekend of symposiums, rallies, and ceremonies designed to continue his legacy of voter registration and education at SCLC by mobilizing voters for the upcoming November elections. Jesse Jackson, Dick Gregory, Andrew Young, and Kweisi Mfume were among the many national leaders who attended the reunion at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Williams' honor. Georgia Representative Tyrone Brooks, who first met Williams at the age of fifteen at a 1962 civil rights workshop, served as one of the principal organizers of the event. Of Williams, Brooks said, "He led the most dangerous marches, he went to jail, he got beaten up, he got shot at. He was the guy always on the battleground."