This is the grave of Hosea Williams.
Born in 1926 in Attapulgus, Georgia, Williams grew up poor. His parents had met at a school for the blind and his father wasn’t in the picture after he was born anyway. His mother died when he was young and he was raised by her parents. But Williams had more than one experience with lynch mobs. In 1939, he had to flee his home town after he supposedly consorted with a white girl and a mob was going to lynch him. He ended up serving in World War II and nearly died in the war. He actually thought he could get out of the war because he had a heart problem, but it was a quite fixable one so the Army did that work and then sent him to Europe. He was the only survivor of a German bomb and he won a Purple Heart. Upon leaving the military, he returned home in his uniform, wearing his Purple Heart. He got off the train, decided to drink water at the whites only water fountain, and a mob attacked him again, beating him so severely that he nearly died. Like, he was only discovered to be alive when the funeral home hearse driver turned around and saw him breathing.
While in the hospital recovering, Williams decided he was not going to put up with anything from whites ever again. He would spend his life fighting the hate and discrimination that had already almost killed him twice (or three times if you count the Nazi bomb). He went back to school, graduated with a high school degree in 1949, and enrolled at Morris Brown College, one of Atlanta’s Black colleges. He graduated with a chemistry degree and then did a master’s degree in chemistry at what is today Clark Atlanta University. While we certainly do not remember the science part of Williams’ life, he would use this to support himself. He got a job with the Agriculture Department as a chemist, living in Savannah, from 1952 to 1963, mostly working on insecticides. In fact, much later, in 1976, he started his own company making cleaning supplies and he founded other chemical companies over his life.
But he was also a strong civil rights activist. In fact, he was a true militant. Originally, Williams worked in Savannah with the NAACP. He was incredibly brave. But the NAACP was filled with cultural conservatives and complete snobs, starting with Roy Wilkins at the top. NAACP leadership flat told Williams that he would never rise in their organization because his parents were unmarried. Now that’s some civil rights activism! But remember as well as the Montgomery movement began only when a super respectable woman like Rosa Parks sat on the bus. When other, less respectable, members of the Montgomery Black population had done this, the civil rights had refused to support them because they didn’t want any unwed mothers or rabblerousers as their face.
Well, Williams was a minister as well as a chemist and after he was rejected by the NAACP, he joined Martin Luther King‘s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Now, a lot of the SCLC ministers were a rather timid bunch in action. They were, quite reasonably, nervous about what their actions could cause and who would get hurt. King was pretty far out in front of most of these guys and would really get that way by 1965 when he started working in the North, opposing the war in Vietnam, and moving toward socialism, all of which most of the rest of the SCLC leadership found quite uncomfortable. But Williams was an exception. He was a radical man. King himself referred to Williams as “My Castro.” He was absolutely fearless, someone who would march straight toward the cops. His bravery inspired others and because of this, King sent him to hotspots to organize and try and force whites to accept a moderate position to avoid what Williams was bringing to the table.
A true exhorter as a minister, Williams was an outstanding organizer and could rally the troops, as he did on various campaigns. The SCLC campaign in St. Augustine, Florida in 1964 is not among the most remembered ones today–no Montgomery, Birmingham, or Selma here. But it was in fact a quite important moment in the civil rights movement and Williams basically led that campaign, which was a major propellant to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
John Lewis is who gets remembered when we discuss the beatings in Selma, and rightfully so. But while Lewis led the SNCC contingent, it was Williams leading the SCLC contingent on the bridge and was he beaten just as mercilessly by the cops. Williams later left the SCLC and based himself in Atlanta. He was deeply involved with the working class there, another way he was different than a lot of the SCLC ministers, who were by and large far more comfortable with the middle class. He was a big supporter of Black worker strikers against employers to both open up jobs and then to get good wages and working conditions. After King’s death, he tried to get the SCLC to push a more militant path, but he was forced out for this and that organization declined into irrelevancy.
Williams threw his name into the Democratic primary for governor in Georgia in 1966, against Lester Maddox among others. He simply could not let Maddox get away without a challenge. Obviously he did not win that race, but it was an important moment in building the idea of Black political power in the South. He tried a Senate run in 1972 as well, but only got 6 percent of the vote in the primary. However, he did serve five terms in the Georgia legislature and then went on the Atlanta city council. In 1989, he tried to primary Maynard Jackson, the anti-union candidate of the Black upper class and white elites, but did not win that race.
Unfortunately, Williams, along with Ralph Abernathy and Charles Evers, endorsed Reagan for president in 1980 after being so bitterly disappointed by Jimmy Carter. It is again worth remembering what an awful president Carter was. But Williams soon realized that was a disaster and endorsed Mondale in 84. He was certainly not a perfect man. He drank too much and caused at least two drunk driving accidents where he was placed in jail for spells for leaving the scene of the accident. And the finances behind his operations were….sketchy to say the least and there was talk of corruption.
Williams’ last major campaign was in 1987, not exactly a year we think of for old-time civil rights activism. But Forsyth County, Georgia was an all-white county. In 1912, its white residents had expelled every Black person from the county and 75 years later, nothing had changed. It was an all-white county, or so close to all-white as to be effectively that–out of a population of over 75,000, there were 39 Black people in the county. Williams decided to change that, especially seeing that the Atlanta metropolitan area was expanding that way. He launched the March Against Fear and Intimidation. The KKK, strong in Forsyth, was ready to respond. But Williams had the upper hand. Within a week, 20,000 people were marching to integrate the county, including leading officials. Even today though, it is only a 4 percent Black county, though it is 18 percent Asian and 10 percent Latino. However, it was a 66 percent Trump county in 2020. But that will likely change soon.
I saw Hosea Williams speak once. It was 1999. I was working for a summer as a seasonal park ranger at the Martin Luther King National Historic Site in Atlanta. Four months of that was a crash course in the complexities of Black politics, let me assure you. I haven’t shared most of the stories here, but I have a lot of them, from Martin Luther King’s sister pulling up after parking illegally and asking a park ranger “Do you know who I am?” to the Rev. Fred Phelps and his band of lunatics showing up to protest after Coretta Scott King attended the civil ceremony of her lesbian assistant. I have a lot more stories too. But in any case, I don’t remember what the rally was about, but Williams led one at the site and hearing that man speak, I mean, I can see why people would follow him.
Williams died in 2000 of cancer. He was 74 years old.
What Hosea would think of his granddaughter Porsha being one of the stars of Real Housewives of Atlanta, I do not know.
Hosea Williams is buried in Lincoln Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia.
If you would like this series to visit other civil rights leaders of the era, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Floyd McKissick is in Soul City, North Carolina and Roy Innis is in The Bronx. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.