News - A lion lies down

Reflections on a real hero

People are often not what they seem. In this season of counting blessings and giving thanks for all He has done, certain individuals take on special meaning.
The Rev. Dr. Hosea Williams Sr., was one such person.
In what came to be our final conversation earlier this year — amid discussions of his long-awaited biography "to really tell the whole story straight" and his dream of building a local civil rights museum — I asked Hosea if he missed the struggles of the '60s. How, I wondered, did his experience as an "in the streets" activist compare with the tepid "boardroom suite compromises" that often pass for activism today?
Expressing some irritation, he opined that "young people today don't really know what's going on." Recalling his own recruitment to the SCLC by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Ralph David Abernathy in 1963, Hosea remarked that "civil rights" has an entirely different meaning than it did in the segregated '50s and '60s.
"Back then," he said, "blacks wanted the right to simply sit at the front of the bus, go vote and eat at the counter or table for some lunch."
Lamenting that vanished activism, Hosea cautioned that "sad, awful days" still loomed not only for blacks, but for the poor and downtrodden in general. Thus, civil rights became an economics issue.
Guided by his "unbossed and unbought" mantra, Hosea moved into politics, bent on trying to "bring the government to the people" as a state legislator, Atlanta City Councilman and DeKalb commissioner.
During our rambling discussion, Uncle Hosie (as I've always known him) failed to acknowledge the genuine heroics of decades past. Few would argue that, were it not for the likes of himself and John Lewis — along with the lost lives of Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Luizzo, the Rev. John Reeb and others — leading the protest for voting rights in 1965 on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge, far fewer of the nearly 10,000 black elected officials ever have been elected in this country.
Even so, he said, "black politics, at this juncture, is a big failure!"
This characterization should come as no surprise to viewers of "Voice of the Crusader," the cable-TV show Hosea used to vent his frustration with the failure of the Jackson, Young and Campbell administrations to fairly share the city's resources with all sectors of society.
Partly in response to the city's inability to provide for its poorest residents, Hosea began his Feed the Hungry program. Envisioned as a living memorial to Dr. King, Hosea teamed up with the Rev. Holmes Borders and the Wheat Street Baptist Church in 1970 on a mission to provide a healthy holiday meal, clean clothes, a shower and a haircut to the homeless.
And he was no ideologue when it came to results. When he needed funding for the program, he sought and found a willing partner in conservative columnist and convenience-store magnate Dillard Mumford. Similarly, his decision to endorse Ronald Reagan in 1980 reflected his conviction that black votes were being taken for granted.
Uncle Hosie embodied many contradictions. While his civil rights work thrust him into prominence, younger Atlantans were more likely to remark on his numerous drunk driving arrests. A successful chemist and businessman, he nonetheless elected to spend his energies fighting countless battles, a compassionate soul who never tired of stirring the pot. And who can forget the images of 12 years ago, when he and his fellow marchers were pelted with rocks and garbage as they marched against discrimination in Forsyth County?
As presidential votes continue to be tallied in Florida, Hosea must be beaming at an election marking the highest black voter turnout in history.
I owe Hosea an apology. Not so much for ignoring his triumphs, but for dismissing him as a relic of an outdated era. In an age when youngsters think more about the labels on their clothes than about re-knitting the fabric of society, Hosea and his generation of warriors are sorely under-appreciated.
Thanks to Dr. King, Dr. Abernathy, Joe Lowery, Jim Farmer, Ben Hooks and all the rest — you were men among men, and we all stand on your shoulders as we strive for a better tomorrow.
And thank you, Hosea, for always seeking out the truth, for tugging at America's conscience to atone for yesterday's wrongs and today's inequities. Within those overalls beat a heart overflowing with goodwill, the likes of which we may never see again.

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