It is dedicated to the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and follows hard upon the celebration of the Martin Luther King Holiday in January. There is much to celebrate with Dr. King: non-violence, the advocacy of change through the ballot box and his wish for his own and all children that they be judged by "the content of their character rather than the color of their skin."
There is now a problem which is a historical inevitability. Many of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement have gone on ahead: A Philip Randolph, James Farmer, Whitney Young, Ralph David Abernathy, Dr. King himself. Andrew Young is now 86 and a young Congressman John Lewis is now 78. We are now hearing from people twenty and forty years removed from the movement.
This brings me to offer a consideration of King's beloved lieutenant: Hosea Williams. It was the early 90's. I was a Department Head at Wentworth and the college which is located in the black community of Roxbury. We were casting about looking for a suitable speaker for the MLK Holiday. I said that I would try to get Hosea Williams from Atlanta to Boston for a guest lecture. To my delight Hosea Williams said yes. He flew to Boston. We whisked him to the college where he met with faculty and students and gave a talk to a packed house; the audience was transfixed. Then back to the airport with a modest honorarium. All in one day!
Williams, a World War II veteran had served in an all-black unit under George Patton. He received a Purple Heart. He was travelling back to Georgia, in full uniform, by bus. The bus made a rest stop. Williams wanted a drink of water. The "Blacks" water fountain was broken so Williams dug a paper cup from the trash. He rinsed it out and then put water into it using the "Whites Only" fountain. He only touched the handle of the fountain. He didn't put his black lips anywhere near it.
Williams eventually woke up in the hospital. An angry crowd had beaten him so severely that they called an undertaker instead of an ambulance. The hearse driver noticed that Williams was still breathing.
Williams joined the NAACP and the SCLC. He said he was a pile of rage until he met Martin Luther King. King changed his life. Williams bought into King's message and importantly his methods. With King and a few others, a strategy was developed.
Williams told his Wentworth audience that a target was selected. Let's say that black folks were being discriminated against in a town in regard to restaurant facilities or some public accommodation that we take for granted. Hosea Williams would show up. He would probably be dressed in overalls. He often wore red sneakers. And he would have a bullhorn! Williams explained that his gift was drawing crowds and making noise. The crowd was inevitably broken up and there would be arrests. Williams noted that his work had his being arrested more than 100 times. Often the town jail was too small for the number arrested. Often too the polite demonstrators had to assist the police in the process of booking them.
What to do? The town and the police were overwhelmed by these noisy but non-violent people. After a few days a young articulate, well-dressed Andrew Young would show up and there would be a peaceful negotiation on demands. What a difference. Much better to deal with Young than with the loud nightmare of Hosea Williams.
A short time later, "De Lawd," Martin Luther King would arrive and another successful problem resolution would be announced. One, two, three. Williams, Young and King.
Williams spent years in the movement. He was involved with John Lewis in the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. The march highlighted and caused president Lyndon Johnson's submission of the Voting Rights Acts of 1965. It was during that march that Hosea Williams famously said to John Lewis as they faced the attempted violent disruption of their march by the authorities at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, "John, can you swim?" Hosea thought they would all be thrown into the river. There were lots of young blacks who could not swim. Where did you learn to swim? At municipal pools during the summer. But black children were not allowed into the municipal pools.
Williams had a long and colorful career in Georgia politics. He served in the legislature. He was elected to the Atlanta City Council. He served on the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners. He was one of the world's worst drivers. He would be a fixture of life in Atlanta for years.
Hosea Williams has had a street named after him and his papers have been collected as a historical resource but I think what is most characteristic of the man and what pleased him greatly was his founding in 1970 of Hosea Feed the Hungry and the homeless. Hosea Williams loved ordinary folks and never lost the common touch. His efforts stared out as meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas to those who would otherwise go hungry. There were haircuts and decent used clothing to be had. The effort continues with some expansion of clients and resources down to the present day. Tens of thousands of clients are being helped and several million dollars have flowed to some of those most in need. Admirable, Hosea Feed the Hungry...has a splendid charity efficiency rating. More than 98 cents of every dollar goes to client services. Somewhere, Hosea Williams is smiling.