Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Historic Moments – Emmett Till, Martin Luther King, and Cuban Missile Crisis

BOND: Do you remember specific events, historical or personal, that you view as critical to your development or your understanding of American society? Things from the civil rights movement? Things that you read in newspapers? Did you read The Defender?

WILLIAMS: I did. I read the Chicago Defender all the time. Everybody did.

BOND: Yes, I'm sure. Do you remember things you read in the paper or even in the other Chicago papers that impacted on you or you said, gee, these things are going on in these other parts of the country?

WILLIAMS: Well, the thing that I remember distinctly was the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi. I remember that because my father and his family, they were from Mississippi and we always had this image of if we were to go south, things that could happen to you in Chicago and I think also that really brought the civil rights movement front and center for so many of us in Chicago.

BOND: Did it make the South a fearful place for you?

WILLIAMS: It did, at first.

BOND: I remember being terrified. He was one year older than I was. I remember being terrified and my family wanted to move us to Georgia from Pennsylvania and I said, no, I don't want to go, that something like this would happen to me.

WILLIAMS: It was a shocking thing for all of us, I think. And especially in the black community. The other thing was Martin Luther King, the Reverend King's work in civil rights. That became, of course, more and more important across the country.

BOND: Of course, Till would be more personal because he was young and from Chicago.

WILLIAMS: And from Chicago. He was from the southside. He had gone down to visit his grandparents and his family in a town not too far away from where I had gone. I had been in the South to visit my relatives.

BOND: Oh, really?

WILLIAMS: I'd been down there.

BOND: Yes, he was in Money. I was there this summer.

WILLIAMS: You were?

BOND: Yeah, visited the store where he allegedly whistled at this woman. Anyway, it was chilling.

WILLIAMS: It was. But that was the first thing I remember as a young man, that really struck me. I think the other thing was the Cuban Missile Crisis. That, of course, was important to me because I was looking at the outside world. I didn't understand much about it. Of course, I was just terrified like everybody else in America in those days.

BOND: I don't think we now recall how terrifying that was.


BOND: Awfully scary.


BOND: You thought that the missiles and bombs would soon be coming --

WILLIAMS: Any minute.

BOND: Wherever you were, they were coming to you.

WILLIAMS: That's right. I remember a great sense of relief when people said this is over. Pretty amazing times.

BOND: It was.