By Vernon A. Williams
Traveling from Gary to my birthplace, Pascagoula, at the age of nine with my mother riding in the front seat and brother, Willie Jr., behind the wheel, we spotted a dimly-lit roadside diner in the pitch black night of Mississippi – the first place seen open for miles.
Mother stayed in the car while Willie and I went into the dusty, country eatery. When we stepped inside, a deafening silence fell over the tiny but crowded dining room. No silverware clinked against plates or coffee cups, no noise from behind the counter, conversation came to a screeching halt. You could literally hear a straight pin drop.
Willie faced the waitress behind the counter while I kept close watch on the piercing glares of pale white patrons acting as though they had seen Martians enter. I noticed that even after the third time Willie tried to order three burgers, three fries and three cokes that the woman stood motionless, staring him down with those steely, cold blue eyes.
Then the manager came from the back and barked, “What can I do for you boys?” I wondered, even at that tender age, why he made that reference plural since Willie was obviously a grown man. Unperturbed, Willie explained we had driven a long way and still had a distance yet to go and that we just wanted to order food to go.
“Can’t y’all read?” The manager spurted, pointing to a sign overhead that read, “We Serve White Only.” There was another one on the door so I’m sure Willie saw it coming in. He just ignored it. Unrelenting, Willie again attempted to place the order. Finally, the manager gave a quick nod to the waitress who reluctantly turned to prepare the meals.
Willie walked out – cool as the other side of the pillow. I backed out much more precariously. We drove about a couple of miles to a well-lit parking lot, then pulled over to eat. I remember the three of us biting into the sandwiches at about the same time; then pushing open our doors and spitting it out simultaneously.
The cook obviously dumped all the salt from her shaker into the ground beef. Willie was hot and wanted to go back. Of course, mother prevailed and convinced him to drive on.
Being the youngest of 10 siblings, several of my brothers and sisters are old enough to be my parent; evidenced by my sister Ramona whose eldest child, Bobby, is just a year younger than me. Willie is the oldest of six brothers. By the time I was preparing for kindergarten, he had already gone to Jackson State College and the U.S. Air Force.
We never got to know one another that well until I reached adulthood. You see, when he moved to Moss Point, MS the same year I graduated Gary Roosevelt High School, we saw even less of him. There were occasional trips to Gary and a couple of returns to Mississippi, but contact was infrequent at best.
In the past two years, I have talked to Willie more than in the previous five decades. That was largely a result of a devastating gunshot injury that left him a quadriplegic. It was an injury that restricted a man who lived his life with a sense of adventure and purpose, without boundaries.
When Willie moved to Moss Point, he brandished a spirit of political and social activism and advocacy inspired by the emergence of the nation’s first African American elected mayor of a major municipality, Gary’s own Richard Gordon Hatcher. “Black Power Gary Style” by Alex Poinsett became his operation manual, of sorts.
Willie attended town hall meetings, spoke out on people’s concerns, researched information to challenge power brokers, held elected officials accountable and eventually became president of the Moss Point National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Willie used that platform to push voter education, registration and participation as well as to challenge redistricting.
His prominent profile resulted in Willie M. Williams Jr. being elected the first African American Alderman in Moss Point history. But personal aspirations weren’t sufficient. He groomed other prominent citizens and spearheaded campaigns that led to the city’s first Black city judge and eventually, police chief.
Willie was outspoken, without the major nemesis facing most disgruntled Blacks who got “too uppity” – the threat of losing their jobs. He avoided it by becoming his own boss, investing his savings to open the most prominent strip mall in town. Not only did he create jobs for Moss Point residents, but he gave them a chance to support their own business.
His mall included a seafood market, convenience store, currency exchange, delicatessen, grocery and liquor store. In his compassion, Willie tried to hire African Americans hurt in their job search by the fact that they had criminal records. It was that sense of humanity that would ultimately result in tragic consequences.
Confronting an ex-convict employee caught stealing money at one of his stores, Willie found himself and a manager facing the end of a gun barrel. The angry thief shot and killed the manager and left Willie for dead. Willie survived more than another decade, lacking virtually any use of his legs and arms. The injury failed to incapacitate his brilliant intellect. He remained a voracious reader and kept abreast by a flow of cable television news.
Enduring circumstances that would have broken lesser men, Willie was always upbeat.
Not even the endless surgeries and medications and painful realization that he would never return to the robust lifestyle he once enjoyed could conquer his indomitable spirit.
During our lengthy, exuberant conversations, Willie was always anxious to share his well-informed perspective and to test the knowledge of others. Of course, I was no match. Responding to his intricate queries felt like an oral exam for some advanced college degree. Willie always knew the answers. He just sought someone to help him exercise his lofty intellect, a source to channel his vast knowledge.
After growing up so distant, I’m glad we enjoyed such great dialogue over the past two years. It will be what I remember most in his absence – his challenge to others to think beyond the obvious, to dig beneath the surface, to assure that opinions are rooted in research rather than emotion; to position yourself to think through, clearly articulate and thoroughly synthesize reality – never expecting too much, never accepting too little.
That philosophy along with prayer and God’s grace kept Willie going strong during his test of a lifetime. That wisdom enabled Willie to complete his journey with a sense of peace and completion. We miss you already.
CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].