Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries
Hosea Williams described himself as the “thug” of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Martin Luther King affectionately called him “my wild man, my Castro,” in recognition of Williams’ skills as a protest organizer (Branch, 124).
Williams was born 5 January 1926, in Attapulgus, Georgia. His mother, a blind, unmarried teenager, died soon after, leaving Williams to be raised by his grandparents. At age 14, Williams moved on his own to Tallahassee, Florida, where he worked odd jobs for three years before returning to Georgia. When the United States entered World War II, Williams enlisted in the Army, working his way up to staff sergeant in an all-black unit. He was wounded by shrapnel and spent over a year recovering in a British hospital. Once back in the United States, Williams completed high school, earned a bachelor’s degree at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, and a master’s from Atlanta University. He worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Savannah, Georgia, from 1952 to 1963.
Upon moving to Savannah Williams joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and began grassroots organizing. He became widely known for giving speeches against segregation in a public park during his daily lunch break. By 1960 he had become the president of the Southeastern Georgia Crusade for Voters, an affiliate of SCLC. The following year he spoke on the power of the ballot at SCLC’s annual meeting. At SCLC’s board meeting in 1962 King personally recommended that Williams join the SCLC executive board, an honor Williams accepted.
In 1962 Williams began positioning for a seat on the Georgia NAACP national board. When NAACP director Roy Wilkins told Williams that he could advance no further in the NAACP because of his family background, Williams complained to King. King supported Williams and when he was arrested in Savannah the following summer, offered SCLC’s backing “100 percent” (King, 11 June 1963). In 1964, SCLC voted Williams “Man of the Year,” and King hired him on a trial basis to work in St. Augustine, Florida, where on the eve of the city’s 400th anniversary, SCLC was collaborating with local activists to protest segregation. There, Williams taught nonviolence to volunteers, led marches, and was arrested along with his wife and two of their five children.
Later that year Williams formally joined SCLC staff as the director of voter registration. King personally raised funds for his salary, writing a potential donor that Williams’ “talents need a broader horizon [than Savannah, Georgia], and his energies need to be made available to other communities across this nation” (SCLC, 9 November 1964). One such community was Selma, Alabama, where SCLC began work in January 1965, supporting local voting rights activists. After three months of groundwork, Williams and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader John Lewis jointly led the first attempt at a Selma to Montgomery March. This effort became known as “Bloody Sunday” after state troopers and local law enforcement officers brutally beat the demonstrators as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. King came to Selma to lead a successful march three days later.
In March 1965 King named Williams the head of SCLC’s Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) Project, where he oversaw a half-million-dollar budget and several thousand volunteers. Promoted to the role of southern project director by 1966, Williams toured projects, often rallying supporters with King, and walked in the March against Fear to protest the shooting of James Meredith.
In November 1966 King asked Williams to come to Chicago, where SCLC was working with the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations on the Chicago Campaign. Although Williams did not want to leave the South, he grudgingly complied and moved north to run the campaign’s voter registration project.
Williams returned to the South to work as field director for SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign in early 1968. He attended multiple rallies a day, flying with King from town to town to build support for the Washington campaign. At King’s urging, Williams and other SCLC staff joined King in Memphis to support the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike that April. He was with King at the Lorraine Motel when King’s assassination took place on 4 April 1968.
After King’s death Williams became executive director of SCLC, a position he held until 1979, when he was forced to leave because of differences within SCLC. Williams entered mainstream politics, winning election to the Georgia General Assembly in 1974. After a decade of service, he resigned and his wife Juanita won his seat. Williams was later elected to the Atlanta City Council and then became the DeKalb County commissioner. In 1987 Williams led the largest civil rights march in Georgia history into all-white Forsyth County, approximately 30 miles north of Atlanta. Hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members and white supremacists greeted an estimated 20,000 marchers, including King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and veteran civil rights colleagues Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, Dick Gregory, and Benjamin Hooks. Williams died of cancer in 2000.
Branch, Pillar of Fire, 1998.
Carson, In Struggle, 1981.
Dudley Clendinen, “Thousands in Civil Rights March Jeered by Crowd in Georgia Town,” New York Times, 25 January 1987.
“Hosea Williams, a Civil-rights Campaigner, Died on November 16th, Aged 74,” The Economist, 25 November 2000.
King to Williams, 11 June 1963, MLKJP-GAMK.
Daniel Lewis, “Hosea Williams, 74, Rights Crusader, Dies,” New York Times, 17 November 2000.
SCLC, Proposal to the United Presbyterian Church to fund Hosea Williams' salary, 9 November 1964, NCCR-PPPrHi.