In state Rep. Al Williams, the Bulloch County Branch of the NAACP found a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day speaker who came under King's direct influence as a teenager and believes that his message of nonviolence saved many lives.
Williams, a Democrat from Midway in Liberty County, was first elected to the Georgia Legislature in 2002. But he has been active in the NAACP since the age of 13 and recalled that he first spoke to the Bulloch Branch 45 years ago.
Speaking to a mostly black crowd gathered inside the Elm Street Church of God for the annual community observance Monday, Williams noted that he had spoken to an almost all-white group, also about King, Friday night at St. Simons.
"It took white America 40 years to get to loving Dr. King," Williams said here in Statesboro. "We all love him now. There were a whole lot of black folks didn't love him. We all quote him now. But when he needed us to be there for him, we were missing in action."
Williams was in ninth grade in 1961, he said, when he first met King, who held a retreat at Dorchester Academy near Midway. The historic school for African-Americans was no longer in use as such when the missionary association of the Congregational Church let King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference rent the academy for a nominal fee and use it as a training school for civil rights activism.
Shortly after hearing King speak during another visit there in 1963, Williams as a 10th-grader took part in the first March on Washington.
"When I got to Washington and I listened to Dr. King that day — hot day in August — I realized before he got to the end of his 'I Have a Dream' speech, that he tried out about five or six minutes of it on us at Dorchester," Williams said. "What a thrill!"
Williams went on to take part in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. According to the brief biography of him on Monday's printed program, Williams was jailed 17 times during the civil rights movement.
He suggested that the movement would have taken a much more violent shape without King and the approach he learned from the example of Mohandas Gandhi, the leader of India's independence movement.
"Dr. King saved a whole lot of folk. Most of them didn't look like me and you," Williams told the crowd. "But he adopted Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence primarily because Gandhi's movement looked just like our movement. Gandhi had the lowest ones in the caste system following him."
Williams, who is a Vietnam War veteran, had been injured and was in a field hospital on April 4, 1968, he said, when he and others heard the news that King had been assassinated in Memphis. Williams recalled the sound of M-16 rifles being locked and loaded around him in the ward. Then a black chaplain arrived and, asking Williams first to walk with him, marched the African-American servicemen to a makeshift chapel in a tent, he said.
"He stood there and he looked at us, 'How dare you desecrate the name of the apostle of nonviolence through violent means,'…" Williams recalled. "And he looked at me and I felt small, to know that if not for a person of faith that would have been a massacre …
"It would have been outside of what Martin Luther King taught," Williams said. "If he taught me nothing else, if nothing else came into my soul, he taught me how to love. I ain't ever been mad the next day about something that happened yesterday. … So I was able to never hate my oppressors."
Williams also credited his own grandfather, a Baptist minister, with instilling in him that "God is love."
"God is love, and you can't follow him one day and be a devil the next day, and Martin Luther King first and foremost was a preacher of the gospel," Williams said.
McCollar on diversity
In his greeting, Statesboro Mayor Jonathan McCollar had referred to King as "arguably the greatest American." The mayor also talked about the Statesboro Youth Commission, the Workforce Development Commission and the Diversity and Inclusion Commission, also called One Boro, that he and volunteers developed.
City Council, after some questions and hesitation about the One Boro commission, had unanimously adopted all three commissions before the end of 2018, McCollar's first year in office.
"The message that we're wanting to send is that everybody in this community, whether you're black, white, Hispanic or what have you, we're all connected," McCollar said. "We're all connected in that fabric of life called humanity. We are part of God's manifested genius of letting us know that we may not look alike but he loves us the same."
On that note, McCollar added that he wished for more diversity in the attendance at the MLK Day observance.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.