When the “colored” water fountain in the grocery store was malfunctioning, Junius Williams, Sr.’s mother instructed him to use the nearby “white” fountain instead. A white clerk saw Williams and his brother at the “white” fountain, and their need for a sip of water escalated into a heated argument between the clerk and Williams’ mother.
“My mother won the argument because the messenger of white superiority was no match for her rage, her facility with language and her protective spirit. We were both impressed, and we left the store laughing with our heads held high. Now, those individual acts of resistance were what eventually started the civil rights movement,” said Williams in the presentation.
In Richmond, Virginia, where Williams grew up, having separate facilities for Caucasian and “colored” people was the norm. Williams, the keynote speaker for African Latino American Society’s (Af-Lat-Am) annual Black Arts Weekend, spoke of participating in segregation resistance efforts during his childhood and adolescence in his presentation on Friday.
Williams immersed himself in the civil rights movement with the help of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Montgomery, Alabama. An SNCC protest on the streets resulted in William’s arrest, along with hundreds of others. In the jail cells, there were only mattresses—no sheets or blankets.
When it got cold, Williams said, the guards brought some blankets, but not enough for everybody in the cell. Williams watched men grab the blankets in a flurry of hands and dust, but he did not get one. Another cellmate who worked with the SNCC, Worth Long, got the attention of all of the cellmates.
“He said, ‘I don’t know about you, but if I was a man, I wouldn’t take a blanket for myself unless there was a blanket for everybody,’” Williams said. Long’s ideals shaped Williams’ outlook on resistance for the rest of his life.
“I can’t be satisfied with the blanket I have when other people don’t have that same blanket. People ask me, well, why do you fight so hard for public school in Newark when your children go to private school. I say, well, that’s fine, and I’m happy that Junius [Williams, Jr. ’14] has an educational blanket here at Andover, but I can’t be comfortable unless everybody else’s child has a blanket just as good,” he said.
Williams attended Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., where he was one of four students of color in his grade. At Amherst, Williams was known for his constant smile.
“The smile was both my offense and my defense. I didn’t realize it at the time, but every day I was running parallel to the development of the Civil Rights Movement, then full blown in the south. I was employing the strategy of Gandhi without knowing it by wearing them down with my capacity to suffer. I wanted to show them that I was a good guy, a fun guy to be around and just like them in every way,” said Williams. “I ignored a lot of things in order to get along and gain some friends, and that’s how I became the exception. Being the exception was all that we could hope for in those days,” he added.
As his grades improved, Williams saw literature and psychology as applicable tools to the Civil Rights Movement. He majored in political science.
“Power fascinated me, maybe because of what I was beginning to see in the civil rights movement,” said Williams. “Power is a function of people, money and position… If you’ve got money, you’re at the top. Then in the middle, you’ve got the people in the government positions… finally, you have the people at the bottom, but as all things part of the natural order, that may not be so bad. If the bottom crumbles, all the rest of it does.”
Using his understanding of power, Williams caused social change by protesting against the construction of a highway in Newark that would have wiped out part of the black community.
“It’s important for young people to understand these lessons about power so that when they get into positions and they can take charge, they will understand it,” said Williams.
In addition to Williams’s keynote speech, Black Arts Weekend featured a talent showcase on Saturday night, a Black Arts Regional Dance and a worship service with the Andover Gospel Choir.