A lifetime of firsts
George Williams, III, 95-year-old Madison native, recalls election memories
By Ramsey Nix
When the polls opened for early voting in Morgan County, George Williams, Jr. was among the first Madisonians to cast his ballot. It was an appropriate and even poetic gesture, because the 95-year-old native was also the first black citizen to register to vote here 60 years ago. He hasn’t missed an election since, and he wasn’t about to miss this one.
Volunteers had just started setting up the lines when George Williams, III, helped his father inside the Board of Elections building on September 22. His son knew it was important to get his housebound father to the polls: His father needed to see a presidential candidate of color listed on the ballot for the first time in U.S. history.
This presidential election marks another milestone for a man who became the first black poll watcher, the first black grand juror, and the first black bailiff in Morgan County. Like many senior citizens, Williams is reluctant to talk about his vote, but he will explain why he votes to anyone who asks.
“I believe in America, and I believe it should be government for the people and by the people. I taught this for so long to so many people. I never tell anybody how to vote, I just tell them to use their right to vote,” Williams explained.
Williams thinks this is a pivotal election, and he draws parallels between it and the elections of Lincoln in 1860 and Roosevelt in 1932. Regardless of who becomes our next president, Williams prays that he will find God-given strength to change the course of history, because he believes we’ve gotten on the “wrong road.”
“My memory of the closest thing to this was the days we called the ‘Hoover days.’ President Hoover got the country in bad shape,” said Williams.
Williams has a long lifetime of memories to draw from. Born in 1912 to a sharecropping family in Morgan County, he recalls toiling on rented soil for a landowner who demanded 50 percent of the crop. He laments that he was unable to get a proper education. “Back when I was growing up, black boys never had a chance to go to school, except when it was too wet to plow,” Williams remembered.
At the height of King Cotton, Southern landowners stored up unprecedented wealth through unfair labor practices. Williams compares their behavior to that of corporate C.E.O.s today. “I heard that five percent of the people in America own 95 percent of the wealth. That ain’t right!” he exclaimed.
Williams has faith that God will intervene, because he believes it’s happened before, when the boll weevil decimated the cotton crop. That event helped to usher in the Great Depression, and subsequently, the election of F.D.R., Williams’ favorite president in history.
In 1935, Williams left Morgan County for the first time to join the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a work relief program for young men from unemployed families, established as part of Roosevelt's New Deal legislation. Williams worked at one of the few black CCC camps, stationed at Fort Oglethorpe near Lookout Mountain. There he earned $30 per month building roads, parks, and bridges. “That was the first time in my life I got to be somebody. I’d never done nothing but plow the mules,” Williams recalled.
When Williams returned to Madison two years later, he was unable to find a job, despite strong recommendations from the CCC and his newfound skills as an automobile mechanic and qualifications as a truck driver. He remembered signs posted throughout Morgan County: “No nigger need apply.” He found temporary work through the Works Progress Administration until he was employed at a cottonseed oil mill, where he became a master mechanic thanks to his supportive foreman. Roosevelt’s four terms in office– from 1933 to 1945– seem to have shaped William’s opinion that social and economic government intervention is oftentimes necessary.
During that time, Williams married and later raised seven children, although he lost one. He served on the deacon’s board at Plainview Baptist Church, where his spiritual journey began. His faith would buttress his later involvement with the Civil Rights Movement. “I’ve never thought one man was better than another man. I’ve always believed God created all men equally,” said Williams.
From the moment Williams and his wife and the young black couple who lived next door registered to vote, he joined a movement that would break down barriers for years to come. According to Morgan County’s official rolls, Williams registered on November 11, 1948– just nine days after Harry Truman won a surprise victory against Thomas Dewey. Truman ran on a platform supporting civil rights legislation.
The fact that Williams was able to register as early as 1948 means that Morgan County was far more progressive than places like Selma, Ala., where literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses effectively kept black citizens disenfranchised until President Johnson appealed to Congress to pass his National Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Williams joined his fellow Americans in voting for the highest office for the first time in 1952, when Eisenhower ran against Stevenson. He recalled: “I felt like I was a human being, and I didn’t feel like I was breaking no law.”
From that point on, his primary involvement with the Civil Rights Movement was to “encourage black people to vote. They never had done it, and they didn’t want to do it,” Williams said, so he worked on educating his friends and neighbors to exercise this basic right.
Years later, Williams became the first black poll watcher in Morgan County. “The first time I worked at the courthouse on election day, I got some mighty nasty looks, but I didn’t let it bother me. I had a job to do, and that’s what I was there to do. I wasn’t scared.”
White thugs tried to intimidate Williams by driving by and shooting at his house, but the man was never deterred. He shot back. No one got hurt that night, but from then on, Williams said, they left him alone.
“I was not afraid to stand up, because I’m a man,” Williams said.
He learned how to stand up for himself by watching leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He attended Civil Rights meetings and later carried carloads of high school students with him to these meetings. He appealed to Governor Sanders to desegregate the first factory that opened in Morgan County, and sat on the first biracial committee ever established here.
Following Dr. King’s lead, Williams always sought change through cooperation. “One thing I liked about him [King] was that he helped anybody. I think that’s fair, because all of us have to live,” said Williams.
He laments that that spirit of cooperation no longer exists in politics today. “Nowadays, they want black caucuses. We don’t need to separate. Why can’t we just have American caucuses? The Bible says, ‘A house divided cannot stand.’ We’ve got to learn to work together,” Williams said.
Current Morgan County Probate Court Judge Mike Bracewell attested to Williams’ dedication to his fellow citizens and to the law. In addition to serving as bailiff in Bracewell’s court, Williams helped conduct elections when the judge was elections superintendent. “He was an honest and dedicated poll watcher,” Bracewell said. “He helped to make sure that elections were fair and honest.”
Now that it’s time for another presidential election, there are many things that worry Williams about his country. He believes that Americans have gone “money crazy,” forgetting the second commandment. “How can you ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ if you’re fighting all the time?” he asked.
Williams believes that selfishness and greed are at the root of today’s economic problems, much like the “Hoover days.” He hopes the next president will control inflation (like Roosevelt did) and give tax relief to working families. After 30 years, he has paid off his modest house, but property taxes have risen to the point at which he worries that his daughter and granddaughter won’t be able to hold onto it.
He worries about the housing crisis and places the blame on Wall Street. “I just don’t understand these people in high up places. They act like little boys shooting marbles, and they are messing with the finances of America,” he said.
For years, even before the economy faltered, Williams has bemoaned the “broken” two-party system. He doesn’t necessarily want a third party, but rather wants Republicans and
Democrats to be reconciled. Because in order to be successful, Williams believes that public officials, like private citizens, need to learn to work together.
“They don’t do anything in Washington but fight each other. They say, the Democrats done this and the Republicans done that, but they don’t say anything about the folks who sent them up there! I would tell the president that. Do something for the people!” Williams exclaimed.
When the presidential campaign took a negative turn, it reaffirmed Williams opinion that politics need to change. He worried when he saw Senator McCain lose his temper during the last debate because “that ought to be refrained from in higher government.” He commends Senator Obama for “keeping his cool.”
Williams heard someone named Patterson on television the other day suggest a 30-day national prayer, and he thought it was a good idea.
“I’m 95 years old, but I’ve never seen a year like this one. Storms have been raging. I can’t help but believe that God is giving us a chance to get it right,” Williams said.
The former poll watcher hopes that this will be a fair election, and he encourages everyone to get out the vote. If you don’t know who to vote for, Williams suggests you pray for an answer. “God can make this thing work out, just like when he put a cripple [F.D.R.] in the White House,” he said.
Through his life, Williams has learned that progress is as inevitable as the sunrise. As he experiences yet another first in his American life, he is not surprised, but he is as proud as a humble sharecropper’s son can be, and he thanks God for granting him the opportunity to see this day.