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Martin Luther King Day: Anchorage activist Cal Williams keeps marching on

Cal Williams and MLK-Courtesy Cal Williams.jpg
Courtesy of Cal Williams
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Cal Williams next to a portrait of Martin Luther King. Williams is wearing overalls, what he wore when he marched for civil rights in the 1960's. Willliams says he was inspired by King to take an active role in fighting for racial justice and equity.

Just before Martin Luther King Day, Cal Williams likes to share his story with Anchorage school children. He goes to classrooms dressed up as a 1960’s civil rights marcher. Williams can still belt out songs like We Shall Overcome and Oh, Freedom.

He sings them as if he were stepping in time to the music, along with other marchers.

Williams was 22 when Martin Luther King inspired him to take an active role in the Civil Rights movement, but his awakening about the importance of this fight for justice came much earlier, at the age of 14.

“I was in love at the time, and sure I was going to marry Marilyn Monroe,” Williams said. “And all of the sudden, we get this story 70 miles from me, my hometown, that a kid had come down from Chicago and was killed, because he had whistled at a white lady.”

The year was August, 1955. Williams said he and Emmett Till were the exact same age when a lynch mob kidnapped Till, tortured him, and dumped his body in a river.

“So that did indeed change my concept of who I was,” said Till, who added with a note of irony that it ended his dreams of marrying Marylin Monroe.

Instead, Williams’ grandmother sent him to a private Catholic school, which had all Black students, with all White priests and nuns, who demanded a lot.

“These nuns insisted that we stand and look them in the eye and respond,” Williams said, “whereas the status quo down there said, ‘When you talk to a white person, look down and do not make eye contact.’”

But thanks to the nuns, Williams said he grew up prepared to engage with people who were different from him, so when the 1960’s rolled around, it seemed natural to fight for change -- something his grandfather encouraged him to do, even if it sometimes landed him and other demonstrators in jail.

He still remembers his grandfather’s words, “Go on boy. Do what you’re doing, cause pretty soon, all them old racists are gonna die, and they’re ain’t gonna be no more racism.”

Williams says he’s worked most of his life to fulfill his grandfather’s dreams. And at the age of 81, they are still far from being realized. But he says a recent visit to a classroom in Mountain View gives him hope.

“And there was every race in the planet in this one room,” Williams said. “They all laughed at the same joke and they all knew the same song.”

Williams said he was uplifted by the sight of a poster that had the word “hello” in a hundred different languages which are spoken in the Anchorage School District.

“That gave me extreme hope,” he said.

Williams was recently awarded an honorary doctorate at the University of Alaska Anchorage for championing a justice and equality. So just call him Dr. Williams, as he keeps singing those old songs that still give him strength, hope and determination.

Rhonda McBride has a long history of working in both television and radio in Alaska, going back to 1988, when she was news director at KYUK, the public radio and TV stations in Bethel, which broadcast in both the English and Yup’ik languages.