Originally created 11/17/00

Williams, civil rights icon, dies



A man heralded as the civil rights icon who possessed charisma enough to rally hundreds behind a cause died Thursday.

Hosea Williams was 74.

Mr. Williams was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and had a cancerous kidney removed in October 1999. After the surgery, he underwent a series of chemotherapy treatments.

Mr. Williams died at Atlanta's Piedmont Hospital, where he was being treated for an infection since Oct. 20, spokeswoman Nina Montanaro said.

Known as a top lieutenant for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Williams never lost the combative spirit that boosted him from the obscurity of a government agricultural chemist's job in Savannah to the fore of the civil rights fray of the 1960s.

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 all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he lost.

But he also had brushes with the law that brought him notoriety, including his arrest for a 1992 hit-and-run.

The unrelenting voice that attacked social injustices blacks suffered began when Mr. Williams was a young man, a Morris Brown College graduate who majored in biology.

After college, he suffered a severe injury as an Army soldier serving in Europe during World War II. He returned to Georgia, briefly taught chemistry and then worked as a chemist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Savannah.

W.W. Law, 77, who was the president at the time of the Savannah chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was first approached by Mr. Williams in the early 1950s.

"I invited him to join (the NAACP)," Mr. Law said, recalling the day he met Mr. Williams on the street in the 1950s. "He was my right hand. He was totally committed to stirring up things and he would not take a back seat on any issue. Savannah was a hard town."

Subsequently, Mr. Williams was at the head of a deluge of efforts to dismantle segregation in Savannah.

In the mid-1960s, Mr. Williams moved to Atlanta and joined Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"He had a very unique ability of motivating or rousing people," said former Augusta Mayor Ed McIntyre, who said he met Mr. Williams during that time. "He was almost like the advance party for Dr. King. If Dr. King was going to a city, Hosea would go into that city a week before and get the atmosphere created to draw a large crowd for Dr. King, and he is very successful with that. He could get people ready and organized for the coming of Dr. King."

Mr. Williams scorned most elected black officials, whom he accused of turning their backs on the American poor.

His graying, goateed chin and raspy voice were fixtures at civil rights meetings and protests.

The chief organizer of Dr. King's marches and demonstrations, Mr. Williams helped lead the "Bloody Sunday" march in Selma, Ala., in 1965. He was also at the Memphis, Tenn., motel when Dr. King was shot in 1968.

The shot, he said, ended Dr. King's dream because it fragmented his lieutenants.

In 1987, Mr. Williams led a march into virtually all-white Forsyth County north of Atlanta and was greeted by Klansmen and their sympathizers throwing bottles and rocks.

Mr. Williams served in the Georgia Legislature, on the Atlanta City Council and on the DeKalb County Commission before retiring from politics in 1994. He also operated a bonding company and a chemical company that specialized in cleaning supplies.

He 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 jail house fasts or camping out atop Dr. King's tomb.

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 Mr. 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 he pleaded no contest to the other.

His driving record also was a liability. In 1992, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor hit-and-run charges, was sent to jail for 30 days and agreed to spend 30 days in an alcohol rehabilitation program. A 1981 conviction for leaving the scene of an accident resulted in a six-month jail term.

Mr. Williams' daughter, Elisabeth Williams-Omilami, announced last month that she would take over as executive director of Hosea's Feed the Hungry and Homeless campaign, which serves 35,000 meals Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

"He is one of those rare and unique individuals who we don't see very much now," Mr. McIntyre said. "He had a profound commitment to his beliefs."

Associated Press reports were used in this article.

Reach Clarissa J. Walker at (706) 828-3851.