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Hosea Williams: ‘Unbought, unbossed’ civil rights leader died 20 years ago

Hosea Williams mural by Fabian Williams Hosea Williams mural by Fabian Williams

By David Pendered’

The name Hosea Williams was scarcely mentioned in 2020, the year three civil rights icons died. Williams’ life and work in the movement was commemorated this month in a small ceremony, on the 20th anniversary of his death.

Hosea, family

Hosea Williams received a Purple Heart for wounds suffered as a staff sergeant in a Black unit in Patton’s Army during service in World War II. His trademark overhauls recognized the poor and homeless, whom he served with his Feed the Hungry program. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Williams was a reliable lieutenant for Martin Luther King, Jr. Williams was with King in Memphis, and was photographed with King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 3, 1968, the day of the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Three years earlier, Williams and John Lewis were co-leaders of the Selma to Mongomery March, and both were beaten on “Bloody Sunday” on Edmund Pettus Bridge.

In King’s inner circle, Williams worked with the three civil rights leaders who died this year – the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the Rev. C.T. Vivian, and Congressman John Lewis. Williams preceded them in death, of cancer, on Nov. 16, 2000.

Williams is best remembered at this time of year for a Thanksgiving Day meal for the “least of these” that he started in 1971. The pandemic has reduced it to a drive-through event without personal support services such as grooming. But the event continues, sponsored by Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless.

Williams is less remembered for two civil rights marches in Forsyth County in 1987, to commemorate the first MLK Day, as proclaimed by then President Ronald Reagan, whose candidacy Williams had supported in 1980. The first Brotherhood March was met by Ku Klux Klan members and supporters. Williams rallied a second march, and it drew national attention and 20,000 participants – including Correta Scott King and then Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. The marchers were protected by more than 2,000 National Guardsmen, according to a report by the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

This year, Forsyth County residents sought to reconcile with the county’s racial past.

A recognition of the 20th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Hosea Williams was conducted at Atlanta’s Lincoln Cemetery. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Forsyth County’s board of commissioners voted in June to recognize Juneteenth, which observes June 19, 1865, the day the federal government declared all slaves free. In January, several organizations joined to recognize the death in 1912 of Rob Edwards, a Black man killed in a jail cell, whose body was dragged through downtown Cumming and hung from a telephone pole, according to a report in forsythnews.com.

Between his work with King and the Forsyth County marches, Williams engaged in a political career. He maintained his adage of “unbought and unbossed,” a saying he shared with Shirley Chisholm, the nation’s first black woman elected to Congress and to run for president.

Williams service in elected office included a decade in the state Senate; five years on the Atlanta City Council; and a loss to Maynard Jackson in the 1989 mayoral campaign that he followed with five years as a DeKalb County commissioner. Juanita Williams, his spouse, succeeded Williams in the state Senate.

Hosea Williams’ niche in Lincoln Cemetery was decorated in recognition of the 20th anniversary of his death, on Nov. 16, 2000. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Williams is interred in Lincoln Cemetery, a fairly obscure final resting place in Atlanta’s Westside. All but one entry on its Facebook page are dated 2017 and earlier.

If Atlanta had a Civil Rights Trail, Lincoln Cemetery would be a destination. It’s an historic Black cemetery for those who aren’t laid to rest in Oakland Cemetery, the city-owned park and cemetery, or South-View Cemetery, established in 1886 by Black businessmen. Lincoln Cemetery is located at 2275 Joseph E. Boone Blvd. and the list of notables interred there includes:

  • Joseph E. Boone, an organizer of the Atlanta Movement, which led to the integration of lunch counters and department stores in Atlanta;
  • Ralph David Abernathy, who worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. to organize the Montgomery bus boycott, the one with Rosa Parks, in 1955;
  • Billy McKinney, the first, or one of the first, Blacks hired by the Atlanta Police Department and father of former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney;
  • Harold Dawson, Sr., a real estate tycoon whose firm built the first luxury high rise in a Black neighborhood in Atlanta;
  • Tiger Flowers, the first Black World Middleweight Boxing Champion, in 1926, an era when professional boxing was predominately white.

Note to readers: Photographer Kelly Jordan provides more images of the 20th anniversary commemoration of Williams’ death, and past years of Hosea Feed the Hungry & Homeless Thanksgiving Dinner.

 

Hosea Williams is honored in this mural, painted near the birth home of Martin Luther King, Jr. on a structure along Airline Street in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. Credit: Kelly Jordan

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David Pendered

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.

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2 Comments

  1. Neill Herring December 1, 2020 8:26 am

    Hosea and Juanita Williams were both members of the GA House, not the State Senate. A recently deceased House member once said “The Senate is full of people running for something else.”Report

    Reply
    1. David Pendered December 4, 2020 2:25 pm

      Thank you, Neill,
      For the close read and for taking time to comment.
      The source on the information about Hosea Williams serving in the state Senate is the New Georgia Encyclopedia. I should have provided the source and the link.
      The clarification of this is important. A great deal of information about Mr. Williams varies among sources.
      Best regards,
      David
      https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/hosea-williams-1926-2000Report

      Reply

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