Newark activist Junius Williams on teaching, and making, Black history

Junius Williams, in a gray suit and tie, gestures with his hands while standing at a lectern with flags behind him in a portico at Newark City Hall.
Junius Williams speaking at Newark City Hall in 2015. Williams is an educator, organizer, and the city of Newark’s official historian. (Courtesy of City of Newark Press Office)

How do you describe someone like Junius Williams, who has seen and done more than most during his 78 years of life? Well, let him try.

“I’m a historian. I’m an attorney. I’m an educator. I’m a blues man. And I am an organizer.”

That was how Williams — the Southern native, longtime Newark resident, Yale-trained lawyer, Civil Rights Movement veteran, community organizer, city of Newark historian, and blues harmonica player — characterized himself last year on an episode of his podcast. Oh yes, the septuagenarian is also a podcaster.

At a moment when Black history, how it’s told and how it’s taught to students, is the subject of bitter debate in statehouses and school board meetings nationwide, Williams has not only studied and written chapters of that history, he has also lived it.

Born in Suffolk, Virginia, in 1943 and raised in Richmond, Williams grew up amid the dehumanizing racial segregation of the Jim Crow South, where separate water fountains, swimming pools, and schools for Black and white children were facts of life. Pushed to excel academically by his educator parents, he attended Amherst College in Massachusetts — where he was one of very few Black students — and later Yale Law School.

While still in college, he traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the fight for Black voting rights. Marching downtown, the demonstrators encountered angry police “whipping anyone and anything within the radius of their wild swings,” Williams has written. He and other protesters were arrested and detained in a state prison.

Not long after, Tom Hayden, cofounder of the radical activist group Students for a Democratic Society, recruited Williams to join its campaign to organize Newark residents around housing and economic issues. It was a fateful invitation. In Newark, Williams discovered his prowess as a community organizer and witnessed the 1967 uprising against police brutality, which left 26 people dead and altered the course of the city’s history.

The following year, Williams helped Newark community members negotiate a deal with officials that downsized the footprint of a new medical school, which would have displaced thousands of people of color, and secured jobs and housing for residents. In 1970, he managed the successful campaign of Kenneth Gibson, who became Newark’s first Black mayor.

More recently, Williams has focused his energy on educating the next generation of leaders. He founded the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers University-Newark, which teaches Newark parents and students how to advocate for better schools; wrote a memoir, “Unfinished Agenda,” that turns his life experiences into an activist’s playbook; and hosts the lively podcast, “Everything’s Political,” about “the politics we don’t see that shape our lives.” Lately, he has been assisting the Newark school district in its efforts to teach students a more robust and accurate account of African American history.

Why spend so much time sharing the knowledge and wisdom he’s earned over a lifetime?

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“I learned a long time ago that I’m not going to be here forever and I’m not going to be able to do all the things that we want to get done in this lifetime,” he said. “So you have to pass it on.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Williams recently about his life, his work, and the ongoing struggles around history education and school integration. The interview has been edited and condensed. You can view the entire interview in the video below.

Chalkbeat Newark: I wanted to start by talking about your own education. You entered the public school system in Richmond, Virginia, at a time when segregation was still the law of the land. Then, during your education, there was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case where the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation violated the Constitution. I’m curious, what was it like for you first attending segregated schools? And then did you see any changes after the Brown ruling? 

In Richmond, everything was segregated, right down to the water fountains. Well, one day they decided to desegregate the city buses. So my mother and father instructed us to be cool — this was the day. And, of course, as young people we were going to make sure we sat in the front of the bus. So we did. We sat as close to the bus driver as we possibly could. 

We were in junior high school at that time, and every day we took that bus. The older people looked at us and were afraid; they just didn’t know what was going to happen. They went to the back of the bus. We sat there. We had this bus driver whose neck got just as red as it could. We were just giggling and tee-heeing. Outside the people who we passed looked at us with awe because we had done something that they were not able to do.

Throughout my actions in the South — that was also true in Montgomery when we challenged the voting rights situation and I eventually went to jail there, state prison — the older people held back, the younger people charged forward. That was basically my experience with desegregating anything. 

After the thrill wore off, we went back to the back of the bus where we could cackle and tee-hee and not worry about what those older people were saying about us as they looked at us with stern warnings. But not on that day. We were leading them.

Did the Supreme Court ruling ring true to you — that separate facilities are inherently unequal, whether it’s buses or schools? That even if the facilities themselves were equal, just the fact of separating people by race creates a sense of inferiority or inequality?

Well, yes, that was true. That’s what desegregation was all about. 

We were treated as second-class citizens and we were branded as second-class citizens by the facilities that were made available to us. Because separate was never equal. 

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It’s now been almost 70 years since the Brown decision and schools across the country in some places are still racially segregated. And in fact there’s a court case right now in New Jersey challenging school segregation here. Having lived through this, what is it like to see that so many schools remain segregated?

The grandeur, the allure of integration has long since left me. When I became a part of the Black power awareness, one of the things we realized is that we don’t need to be with white people to know who we are and to do well. So desegregation has not worked to fortify people in that respect.

What desegregation does, or integration, it gives you an opportunity to see just what white people are like and how they operate. I don’t mean that necessarily in a defamatory way. I’m just saying, I went four years at Amherst College and three years at Yale Law School — I know white people. They put their pants on in the morning just like I do. 

That’s what desegregation does. It doesn’t really help the race, it helps those individuals who have been exposed.

The current case is still in the courts. If the state is found liable for segregation and ordered to make changes, how do you think that would go over among people in the state?

Resistance on the part of whites, great acceptance on the part of Blacks and brown people.

The resistance on the part of white people …. They do not want to see Black people taking their resources. They don’t want to see them in their spaces. They don’t want to be around them. But from the standpoint of Black people, parents who want to see their kids get ahead and they realize there’s only one chance for these kids, they would go for that. 

Therein would lie the conflict. It would be just like down South, but with a more gentle touch. You wouldn’t have the violence, but there would be a certain political awakening among the white suburbanites to keep Black people where they are. And to make sure that their children didn’t have to come to the urban schools.

I wanted to talk a little about your activism. When I was reading about it, it just struck me how young you were when you were doing that organizing. So what role do you think young people played in the civil rights movement and more recent movements like those for LGBTQ rights and Black lives? 

Without the energy and the fearlessness of the youth, any movement will peter out and be less than what it is really capable of. 

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If we look at the voter rights movement now, we see some young people. But I don’t see the enthusiastic support that we saw in my era because we wanted the vote. We saw the vote as not just the exhibition of democracy, but we said, voting is power. 

Young people don’t see that today because our politicians and people we put in office have not been held accountable for what they do and don’t do. So instead of young people saying, “Hey, we got to hold these people accountable,” they just say, “Well hell with the vote.” Some, not all.

In New Jersey, we have the Amistad law that was passed in 2002, which was meant to make sure students are learning about African American history, slavery, the contributions of Black Americans. But over the years, there have been questions about its implementation. The new leadership of Newark Public Schools is working to change that and create a new curriculum, and I’ve heard they’ve asked you to help.

Well the first thing we did is put together a curriculum based on the website, Rise Up Newark. We also started a similar website in Detroit. My lead researcher, Peter Blackmer, and I, we put together a curriculum based on the city of Newark. 

Not only were we looking at the white ethnic groups who rose to power, we were comparing that to the Black progress. How did we get power in Newark? That’s being used in 10 high schools already and hopefully it will be more.

Right now, they’ve asked me to look at some of the other curricula they have proposed and to propose some alternative curricula with that in mind all the way from kindergarten up through middle school, thus far.

And are you helping them in particular with Newark history?

With respect to the work I’m doing right now, it’s more general. It’s like, for example, if I’m going to be looking at a history of Africa. You don’t shy away from words like colonialism and slavery.

And if you’re looking at the American scene, we don’t start the history with slavery, we go back to where Africans were before they were brought to this country to be enslaved. What was their civilization like? 

We want young people to understand that the mother of civilization is the continent of Africa. Not only did the first people come from there, but the first great civilizations came from Africa. 

We want people to get a view of the world as it really is, as opposed to a homogenized, white perspective, which is white-supremacy-oriented.

This seems self-explanatory, but it’s being debated right now: Why is it so important for students to get that full, truthful history that includes the contributions of Black people but also oppression and white supremacy? 

People of color have been taught, still, you ain’t mmm compared with white people. So it’s necessary, it’s not just nice, that people learn who they are. That they come from something that’s much better than you really have been told has happened. 

You can’t expect people to do well on math tests and whatever other skills are prescribed if they don’t feel good about who they are.

Newark has such a rich history, and you’ve been part of some of the pivotal moments. Are there certain key periods of history or events or themes from Newark’s history that you’d like to see Newark students learn about?

One of my big future projects — hopefully not too far in the future — is to examine the role of music in Newark.

Newark is a music city. A lot of people don’t know that. You’ve got people like Sarah Vaughan and Dionne Warwick and Whitney Houston. All these people have roots in Newark — not just Newark, Newark music. 

The last I saw, there are at least 36 states in the past year or so that have introduced or adopted policies that would restrict teaching about race and racism, talking about things like white privilege or structural racism, or even topics that would make students feel guilty or uncomfortable about the past. As someone who’s steeped in history, what are your thoughts when you see these efforts to limit what students can learn?

That has happened because of the killing of George Floyd. When George Floyd was killed, for nine minutes everyone in the world saw a Black man being murdered by one cop in particular, but two others were his assistants. 

Something went off in the minds of young people especially — young, white people — watching that in this country. And for the first time, there were more white people in the street in some places than Black people protesting that death. And the white folks in charge said, “Whoa, what’s going on here?”

Then some of the adults who were in charge in the suburbs were saying, “We really don’t know what’s going on with Black America. They’re saying that there’s white privilege, and we saw it, and we got to talk about that. We’ve got to really study it and do something about it.” 

That’s when the reaction came. When the young white people want to know that perhaps it’s not so good to be white, quote-unquote, it’s not so good to have this privilege. That this privilege is driving us in economic ways, political ways, social ways, and we ought to do something about it, we need to learn more. 

That’s when the folks in charge said, “We got to stop this shit.”

The last thing I wanted to ask you: When you think about what your legacy will be and how your story will be told, what do you hope it will be?

I want to educate people. I want to pass on the knowledge that I have, that we’ve accumulated, that I learned from standing on the shoulders of giants.

My latest chance to do that is with “Everything’s Political,” the podcast. Everybody’s doing that, so the challenge is: How do you make your podcast stand out? How do you continue to still speak truth to power? 

And I have been fortunate enough to have people who agree with me and see this as part of our collective legacy and have helped me do that. So I’m going to keep on doing that as long as I can.

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