GENEVA – When Loy Williams met Martin Luther King Jr. in the fall of 1964, he remembered a man who was short in stature and soft-spoken. Although King was relatively quiet, “what he said carried a lot of power,” Williams said.
“To this day, he’s the most charismatic person I’ve ever met,” he said.
On Monday, the United States will recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day. King was born in January 1929, and he was assassinated in 1968. Williams, a Geneva resident, met King while pursuing his master’s degree at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Williams was part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was headed by King. While in school, Williams and his wife, Linda, had been active in registering people to vote, particularly in the black community in the Dallas area.
King was in the Dallas area to give a speech at SMU when he met with five student leaders, including Williams, who was chair of the school’s Social Action Committee.
Williams said when he met King, he noticed what seemed like a “quiet sadness” from King. He said it wasn’t until a few years later that he realized King had been receiving daily death threats at that point in his life.
“In retrospect, it makes a lot of sense, that sadness,” he said.
Williams said in 1965, he received a telegram from King asking him to gather everyone he knows and head to Montgomery, Ala., where he and Linda Williams joined a civil rights march. As they marched, Williams remembers the crowd of about 25,000 people singing the words, “We shall overcome.”
Williams said he and his wife felt it was important to support the civil rights movement, although it wasn’t always easy. Williams said his father was a segregationist from South Carolina.
“He was not supportive of what [King] was doing,” he said.
Williams said his mother, however, was supportive in her own ways. Back then, African-Americans were not allowed to ride in the front seat of a car with a white person. Williams said when his mother was asked to drive a black woman to a bus stop, his mother insisted that the woman sit in the front seat.
Williams said the United States has come a long way since segregation was the norm.
“As Linda and I traveled on boat through the South, we found that many political offices in the South are held by black citizens,” he said. “And there are no ‘white only’ signs in public places. You see blacks and whites working together in white-collar and blue-collar jobs, treating each other with respect.”
But he said there’s still work to do.
“Blacks still don’t have equal status as whites,” he said.
He said the civil rights movement still exists today, but in a form different from the 1960s marches. He continues to reach out to a local Islamic congregation in Batavia and also to the Latino community in Geneva.
“I think the more we know about each other, the better we understand each other – and, really, the richer society is, in general,” Williams said. “I think the struggle for civil rights is a struggle that will never be finished because of the way human nature is. We need to make sure we treat everyone with the same respect.”