Hosea Williams was standing below the Memphis motel balcony when he saw his friend and mentor, Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated. Williams, a pugnacious lieutenant in the civil rights movement, the bad cop to Andrew Young’s good cop, wondered “whether America lost its last chance.” Born in the tiny southwest Georgia town of Attapulgus to two blind, unmarried teenagers, Williams was run out of town by a lynch mob at the age of 13 for allegedly consorting with a white girl, and he was nearly beaten to death for drinking from a whites-only water fountain at an Americus bus station after returning from World War II. A limp from a wartime injury did not stop Williams, a research chemist by training, from crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma with John Lewis and marching with King, who called the agitator “my wild man, my Castro.” The rabble-rouser carried King’s banner after his death, marching for pay raises for Atlanta sanitation workers, staring down the Ku Klux Klan in Forsyth County in 1990, and feeding tens of thousands of homeless people at his annual Thanksgiving dinners. In 2000, the man who proudly claimed to be “unbought and unbossed” died from cancer. He was buried in his familiar denim overalls, red shirt, and red sneakers—an outfit Atlanta knew so well.
This article appears in our April 2018 issue.