Each one, teach one
by Matt Jardin |
Past president of NAACP Alaska chapter, honorary doctorate and Homecoming keynote speaker Cal Williams reflects on lifetime of professional and political achievement
Everything Cal Williams, Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters ’22, accomplished in life, he credits to someone having faith in him.
“Most of the places that I found myself were the result of somebody else believing in me and directing me to go there,” said Williams. “For me, the opportunity of education was a salvation. The fact is that the education process is that of information sharing from one to another — each one, teach one. We learn from someone else.”
Born in Monroe, Louisiana, seven days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Williams grew up in the era of racial segregation. He was raised by his grandmother — one of the first Black nurses in the area at the time — as his mother worked long hours in a factory, and most of the men in his family had been drafted to serve in World War II. At the behest of his grandmother, Williams attended Little Flower Academy, a Catholic school run by Franciscan priests and nuns dedicated to the equitable education of Black children.
Inspired by Sidney Portier, the first Black actor to win an Oscar, Williams gravitated toward the performing arts, which the Little Flower teachers nurtured by casting him in school plays. When it came time to pursue higher education, Williams majored in theater and television production at Grambling University.
Like most of the men in his family, serving in the armed forces was expected. Williams enlisted with the U.S. Air Force and served during the Vietnam War, monitoring missile systems at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Not content to be part of only one historic movement, after the military he participated in civil rights demonstrations, voter registration drives and the racial integration of Northeast Louisiana State College.
Switching from armed service mode immediately into civil rights mode was pretty jarring for Williams. To guide him through the change, Williams partnered with members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) — one of the prominent civil rights organizations in the early years of the civil rights movement — who were protesting racial segregation in his hometown of Monroe.
“Though I had been trained to be a killer in the armed services, [CORE] was teaching nonviolence,” said Williams. “In spite of what happens to you, whether people slap you or spit on you, et cetera, you’re not to be violent. You ought to be peace loving and prayerful and keep your mind focused on the cause. Mentally, it was a transformation.”
In 1965, following the advice of Charles and John LeViege, two high school friends who were enrolled at Alaska Methodist University (now Alaska Pacific University), Williams came up seeking a change. What he found was a community that was far better socially and economically for members of his race.
Over the next 60 years, Williams worked at Providence Alaska Medical Center as a dishwasher (aka director of pots and pans), then as a nursing assistant at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, and eventually then landed a role in communications for Alaska Housing Finance Corporation until his retirement.
Equally as impressive as his professional trajectory is his civic activism. Most notably, Williams served as president of the Alaska chapter of the NAACP from 1968 to 1970. During that time, he partnered with Alaska Native leadership to lobby for the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
More recently, Williams collaborated with UAA associate professor of history Ian Hartman, Ph.D., in the writing of Black Lives in Alaska: A History of African Americans in the Far Northwest. Together, they have done presentations, book signings, museum exhibitions and archive curations. For his invaluable contributions, UAA awarded Williams an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters in fall 2022.
Of all the accolades to follow his major contributions, Williams is most proud of receiving the St. Francis of Assisi Award from the Archdiocese of Anchorage in 2017. As it happens, St. Francis was also the patron saint of Little Flower Academy, bringing Williams’ story full circle.
“The Franciscan edict of not amassing wealth for yourself, but using your time and talents to help others was ingrained in me,” said Williams. “If you saw a piece of paper on the ground, you didn't care who put it there, you picked it up. If you saw someone in need, you leaped in to help them. If there was a basketball game, you cheered for the underdog.”