Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Foundational Experiences: Father's Stories and Watching Airplanes

BOND: What made you choose your career? In high school you wanted to be a priest. I understand your father talked you out of that.

WILLIAMS: That was earlier I wanted to be — in grade school, I wanted to be a priest.

BOND: Oh, okay.

WILLIAMS: But I really idolized my father and so I've always — I really always admired — I'm not saying I'm some [marionette] or something, but I've always admired people in uniform and what they stand for, so I joined the military and I think a lot of that's because my dad had been in the military. And to me, what I always wanted to do was, in a subconscious way, is I wanted to redeem his sacrifice because he was in this generation where, you know, they gave everything they had for their children. They faced brutal discrimination.

You know, my dad always told people this story — okay, here was a man. He got two Bronze Stars in World War II. He was a captain in World War II. He actually was in some combat situations in World War II. That was very, very unusual to be a captain, an African American, in World War II was a really big deal. Now, when he got out, what could he do? Well, when he got out, when he was leaving, the German prisoners of war were treated better than his men, he and his men. The only job he could get was, what, he worked in the post office. What did he do? He worked thirty-eight years in the post office. He took like one or two days off sick leave. Imagine that. All of his children went to college so I said, "You know what, I'm going to do what he couldn't do," and I always tell people this story.

When we were growing up he always took us out on these cheap excursions because we didn't have a lot of money, right? So, one of the things he did was he would take us out to the airport and we would watch the stars. We'd get on the old propeller planes and we'd watch. And we watched as the propeller planes turned into jets and they had all the smoke and then, you know, we watched this whole kind of scene unfolding. Kind of every other week or so we would go out there and watch the planes and I always wondered — I kind of liked it, because I like — out of that, I really came to like airplanes. You couldn't help if you're spending like four hours a night watching all these airplanes. I felt like an air traffic controller, we were out there so much. But anyway, I always wondered, though, why did he take us out there?

And lo and behold, about — I was telling some people this story about a year or year and a half ago, my wife and I were flying back here from visiting my family, you know, and when the plane was turning around to take off, I almost — I didn't almost, I started crying because I realized what he [my dad] was saying was, "You know, kids, I'm never going to be able to get on this plane because I can't afford it." Right? "I'm never going to be able to fly on this plane, but I'm showing you life in the promised land." You know what I mean? "This is life across the river. I can't cross the river but you're going to be able to cross the river. You do all the things that your mother and I tell you to do, you're going to be on the plane one day," and here we were on this plane eating peanuts.

BOND: Yeah. Does this fascination with planes account — it's got to account for your having gone into the Air Force? And thinking that you would actually fly these planes?

WILLIAMS: Yes, but you know, it was during the Vietnam War. It was a bad time to be in the military.

BOND: How'd you go from counseling draft resisters to going into the Air Force?

WILLIAMS: Well, it was kind of in an anti-war — I don't know what. I wouldn't try to now organize my thinking in any serious way because I don't think it was serious, but I was kind of basically anti-Vietnam War but not really anti-military, and I was in the military and then I said, "Well, I really don't want to make this a career, and as a matter of fact, I really don't believe in violence, period." But then I felt, well, you know, the year that I could've been in but I wasn't in because I got out early, well, I should do some kind of community service to kind of finish out that kind of commitment, you know? It was kind of a mess. I don't know. I wouldn't call myself doctrinaire, categorical conscientious objector now, but I think the basic approach and philosophy has a lot to be said for it.