Hosea Williams Was Key Player In Civil Rights Movement

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ATLANTA — Hosea Williams was a key player in the demonstrations that resulted in historic laws guaranteeing Civil and Voting Rights in this country.

During the movement, police arrested Williams 125 times.

His career as an activist began in his home state of Georgia.

Savannah was your typical small Southern town in the late 1950's, but Williams was not living the lifestyle of most blacks. He was living a suburban dream.

That is, until he saw someone on TV that eventually changed his life.

"I saw this young man in Montgomery, Alabama and he told the people, ‘Y'all get behind me and I'm going to lead you and show you how to get free.' And I said, ‘My God, I've got to go see that man,'" said Williams during an earlier interview.

Williams drove to Montgomery that same day.

"I never met God until I met Martin Luther King Jr. King was not my God, but the true God was revealed to me through King. And that's when I knew I had to give it up," said Williams.

Williams gave up the good lifestyle and his job as a chemist and became an activist for the NAACP and a spin-off group from the SCLC, the Chatham County Crusade for Voters.

Williams used his power of persuasion to get record numbers of blacks to register to vote, and he organized mass rallies. He would crawl up on a certain rock in one of Savannah's squares at lunchtime and deliver fiery speeches.

"And the way he talked about white people in general and segregation, I said, ‘This guy's either crazy or he is one hell of a leader. And I found out that he was both," said Willie Bolden.

Bolden, now a preacher himself in Atlanta, worked right across the street as a hotel bell captain in the early 1960's. He was fired from the hotel because of his cooperation with demonstrators.

"I started going to the mass rallies that Hosea was having and listening to him and this guy, he was just, I mean he could really get people riled up," said Bolden.

Bolden joined Williams in the freedom fight and became known as one of "Hosea's Boys," a team that organized communities on a grassroots level to take direct action.

Williams organized the first "night marches" in Savannah.

During one arrest, Williams was jailed for more than 50 days. At age 8, his daughter, Elisabeth, started going to jail with him.

"Those mass meetings with those speakers and singers and the choir and marching and going to jail and thinking this was a normal life and that everybody was doing it," laughed his daughter, Elisabeth Omilami.

Omilami said she liked going to jail with her dad.

"I really did. It was so exciting. There was never any feeling of threat for me as a child going to jail with him," she said.

Savannah desegregated in 1963, a full year before the passage of the Civil Rights Bill. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would acknowledge Hosea's role in making Savannah the most integrated city in the south. He convinced Williams to join the SCLC full-time.

Williams brought his bold, abrasive style to cities across the south.

"He was not afraid of anybody. I mean, that's why Martin Luther King called him his kamikaze," said Tom Houck.

Williams insisted the demonstrations remain non-violent, a task often hard to follow.

"I'm an ex-Marine. It was very difficult for me to see a grown man put his foot in the crotch of a 9-year-old boy and twist his leg and break it in two places. And not what I really wanted to do," said Bolden.

Bloody Sunday, March 1965, was another milestone. For weeks, Williams had organized the march in Selma.

John Lewis, now a Georgia Congressman, and Williams, led a crowd of 600 as they approached a force of Alabama State Troopers.

"And Hosea said, ‘Major, can we kneel and pray?' and the major said, ‘Troopers advance,' and Hosea said to me, ‘John, they are going to gas us.' He saw those guys putting on their gas masks and there's this unbelievable photograph of Hosea putting his fingers up to hold his nose, and troopers cam toward us – beating us, pushing us with nightsticks and bullwhips and trampling us with horses," said Lewis.

"On that bridge, I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die," said Lewis.

Troopers brutally beat Williams and Lewis. Lewis lost consciousness. Two days later, they met again.

"Hosea never stopped," said Lewis. "Apparently he started planning for the continuation of the march. He became like the ringmaster, the leader. It was Hosea more than anyone else, he had been in the Army and he was disciplined and he was a chemist and he was well organized."

In Dr. King's inner circle, Hosea took the role of field general. He would often set the stage for Andy Young to come to town and negotiate with politicians.

Young and Williams were on the same side, but, "Hosea and I used to clash," said Young. "We were the opposites in SCLC. Hosea was always, he was always confrontational. And it was my job to kind of, you know, hold things together."

"Hosea was always on one side and Andy was always on the other," said Houck. "And they would cuss each other out. You wouldn't believe it. But then at the end of the beating, they'd be hugging and kissing."

Both men were forever changed in April 1968. Both were there when shots rang out on a hotel balcony in Memphis, killing King.