A gravel-voiced civil rights icon gone 11 years is drawing new attention nowadays, which got me to remembering my experiences with him during my time as an AJC reporter. When I arrived in Atlanta, the guy with the beard and unique voice was no icon: his confrontational style made him sort of a boogeyman to white civic leaders, including the top management of the outfit I worked for.
That said, as our paths crossed over the years, Hosea Lorenzo Williams, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s close associates in the most dramatic days of the civil rights movement, later an Atlanta city councilman and Georgia legislator, was a reporter’s delight.
One of the good guys for sure, when all is said and added up.
How could “Hosey” not be fun?. He was almost always available on deadline, and you couldn’t beat him for memorable quotes.
So, to recount my most favorite memories, let me start with the first one from long ago.
Let’s face it, Hosea was a demon driver, with a long string of problems with cars, cops and booze. The first time I met him, I was assigned to interview him about one of his auto mishaps. By coincidence, earlier the same day I had covered an angry chimpanzee who escaped from somewhere and rampaged through a neighborhood, frightening the hell out of kids and housewives, who called the cops.
Since “Suzy” would not follow orders and “come along quietly ” (she was charging at one cop, as I remember), they had to shoot her.
Both stories ran the following day, with fairly prominent display. The next day, Hosea griped: “We’re dying in (some war somewhere), the economy is collapsing, the city’s in trouble, and what do you write about? Hosea Williams and a damn chimp!”
The origin of the following tales come from 1987. The scene: Forsyth County, then a virtually all-white locale with a mean reputation for discouraging blacks from moving there. Williams, at the time an Atlanta city councilman, had led a bi-racial group of about 70 people on what he called a “march for brotherhood” though the county.
His plans were widely known, and the media was there in force
It was no surprise when Hosea and his followers were mobbed by about 400 flag-waving white supremacists, organized by the Ku Klux Klan, who pelted them with showers of rocks, bricks and bottles. Video of Hosea, ducking a flying rock, was all over television, feeding nationwide outrage that led to a march by 24,000 people through downtown Cumming completing his route.
Within months, Morris Dees, the Alabama millionaire and civil rights supporter, hit the Klan with a $1.5 million dollar lawsuit in federal district court on behalf of Hosea Williams, his marchers, and other noted Georgia supporters, including then state Representative Billy McKinney, a former Atlanta cop and the father of then-U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney. Dees had used a similar strategy in Alabama to throttle the Klan financially.
But as a federal civil trial jury deliberated a verdict of $940,000 against two Klan outfits and their leaders, Williams, his daughter Elizabeth, and other family members withdrew from the suit, saying they didn’t want the money.
In a rambling explanation in court to the trial judge, Hosea said he had been losing sleep about the likely financial effect of six-figure damages on blue collar sorts, who even with grandiose titles like Grand Dragon, are people too.
“(They) have nothing but their homes, their cars and their paychecks. I could not disrupt their families.” He added he was a “believer in redemption and forgiving your enemies.” Jesus and Dr. King would approve, he said.
During a courtroom break Williams and McKinney continued their disagreement outside, with competing press conferences in front of the Richard B. Russell federal courthouse.
McKinney called himself a “foot soldier” in the civil rights movement, without which it could not have succeeded. And then there were the “stars,” who got the attention, who always had something to say for the cameras, and were always quoted, McKinney said.
I immediately trotted back to Williams, and repeated what McKinney had just said.”What about that, Hosea?”
“Billy McKinney knows as much about the movement as a roach does about a space capsule!”