A glance back: Civil rights leader Hosea Williams and stolen Thanksgiving turkeys

By David Pendered

There was almost no sign of the hardscrabble beginnings of the annual Hosea Helps holiday dinner on Thanksgiving in Downtown Atlanta. Little to remind of an era when turkeys were reported stolen days before the event and the founder would plead for donations.

hosea, t shirt

Hosea Williams folds a T-shirt for his food program in 1996. Credit: AJC via georgiaencyclopedia.org

At least, the turkey theft was the story that founder Hosea Williams told the community. Williams was a civil rights leader who, with now-U.S. Rep. John Lewis, led a march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge into history on “Bloody Sunday.”

Williams knew his way around the public stage. He used those skills to nurture the “Feed the Homeless” event on Thanksgiving. Even when the cupboards must have been bare. He started the Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless program on a shoestring in 1971.

It seems that a week or so before Thanksgiving, Hosea – everyone called him Hosea – would gather the media to say the turkeys planned for the meal had been stolen. There was no telling who would take food from the mouths of the homeless. But it had happened. Hosea would lament that without a major donation, the event wouldn’t recognize the community’s “least of these” as human beings.

Former state Rep. Billy McKinney, an Atlanta Democrat, often chuckled when he’d talk about Williams’ latest plea for donations of turkeys.

One time, in the mid-1990s, McKinney made a comment to the effect of, “Hosea’s turkeys got stolen again? Again! It seems like this happens every year.”

lorraine motel

Hosea Williams (left) stood with Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, the day before King was assassinated. Credit: hbcustory.wordpress.com

And every year, it seemed, a corporate benefactor would step forward to donate a trailer-load of turkeys. Crisis and empty stomachs were averted once again.

It was the kind of feat that illustrates the waning days of the old guard of the modern civil rights movement.

For Williams was the old guard.

Williams is one of three men pictured with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, the day before King was assassinated there on April 4, 1968.

Williams joined Lewis in leading the Selma-to-Montgomery march at King’s behest, according to a report in georgiaencyclopedia.org:

  • “It was also in 1963 that Williams joined the SCLC at the urging of King, the organization’s president. Two years later King asked Williams and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to lead a march from Selma, Alabama, to the state’s capital, Montgomery. The goal of the march was to peacefully deliver to Alabama governor George C. Wallace a petition for African American voting rights.
  • hosea williams mural

    Artist Fabian Williams created this mural depicting Hosea Williams. It was unveiled in September at 659 Auburn Ave. Credit: haroldmichaelharvey.com

    The protest on March 7, 1965, became known as “Bloody Sunday” after several hundred marchers, including Lewis and Williams, were beaten with clubs and whips and fired upon with tear gas while crossing Selma’s Edmund Pettis Bridge.

  • After watching national television coverage of the incident, U.S. president Lyndon Johnson forced the Voting Rights Act through Congress in August 1965. Williams continued his close association and friendship with King and was at his side when King was assassinated in April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.”

The journey of the Thanksgiving dinner has taken it to the Georgia World Congress Center, where thousands gathered in Building B from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Along with a hot meal they saw live entertainment, had the chance to receive health check-ups and tests for various illnesses, clothing, personal hygiene. And the chance to be seen as human beings.

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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