Telling Her Own Story: Civil Rights Activist Dorothy P. Williams

A recently rescued oral history interview helps illuminate the life of an important and dynamic figure in Mobile history.

Civil rights leader Jerry Pogue carries the American flag at the head of the Neighborhood Organized Workers’ parade through the streets of downtown Mobile in memory of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on April 7, 1968. The King March represented a turning point in race relations in Mobile as activists turned to more direct forms of protest in their quest for equality. Dorothy P. Williams is seen in the front row, far right, wearing a white dress and crossing her arms. Photo courtesy Wilbur F. Palmer collection, Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

African-American women were vital to the success of the modern civil rights movement. Yet oftentimes their behind-the-scenes contributions are difficult to dig out of the historical record. As a result, important stories go untold. One example from Mobile’s own civil rights legacy is the life of organizer and activist Dorothy P. Williams, who worked to help marginalized people in south Alabama for more than four decades. The poor, downtrodden and forgotten could always find in her an ally. 

When the editors of the Southern Courier, a newspaper dedicated to covering civil rights and social justice issues, dispatched David Underhill to cover Mobile in 1965, they gave him the names and addresses of two people: John LeFlore and Dorothy P. Williams. Underhill described the Williams home as a nexus for the free exchange of ideas. “There was something papal about it,” he remembered. “If you just sat there at her table…eventually everybody who was doing anything in the area would appear there. Everybody knew that was the place that you went to find out what was happening, to get connected with other folks, to be anointed.” Over the next two decades, the young reporter and Williams became friends and fellow activists. “Her story will never be told,” Underhill once told me, his voice cracking with regret. 

Luckily, it turns out that Williams told her own story. Among the interviews in the Mobile Public Library’s oral history collection are two 1979 sessions with the south Alabama activist. The interview was recently resurrected from deteriorating audio tape through a digitization effort by the Local History and Genealogy Library.  

With a voice made small by illness, the activist narrated the early history of her long life. Dorothy Parker was born in Mobile on Washington Avenue in either 1907 or 1908. Her Creole ancestors hailed from various parts of south Alabama, along its rivers and the bountiful Mobile Bay, from which many of them made their living. Irvin Parker, Dorothy’s father, worked in timber, preparing poles that the power companies used.

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The Williams family faced many struggles growing up in a segregated society. She recalled that one of her younger brothers grew so weary of the harsh conditions that he left Alabama never to return. After completing the eighth grade, Williams left school to find work, first as a domestic servant, including a tenure at the home of John B. Waterman, founder of Waterman Steamship Company. She eventually took a job at a local factory as a doffer and spinner, a position she held until marrying Carl Williams in 1926. The couple had 12 children over the course of their long marriage. During World War II, Dorothy P. Williams returned to the workforce as a housekeeper at one of the new dormitories built for war workers and soldiers stationed at Brookley Field.   

Her civil rights organizing became Williams’s life’s work. She was an early member of both the Mobile branch of the NAACP and the Non-Partisan Voters’ League. But Williams also carried out her own, independent efforts. In the summer of 1965, she opened her home to four white collegians sent to register voters under the banner of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Members of the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on her lawn after the students arrived. They recall that Dorothy and Carl Williams kept a silent watch while they slept. More than 50 years later, those activists remember Dorothy P. Williams as a reassuring presence, determined to expand the electorate in south Alabama.  

Williams was a champion of the causes of the poor and underrepresented. She frequently went into community housing projects to organize and educate residents. When few others would, she spoke up for nearly 50 people living along the site of the former Hickory Street dump. She was also present at the creation of a new civil rights group. The idea to form the Neighborhood Organized Workers (NOW) came about during an impromptu meeting at her home. Williams and other like-minded activists saw the need for a different kind of organization in south Alabama, one less centered on individual leaders and devoted instead to group action and education for who she called “the nitty gritty people…the people on the street.”

David Jacobs, the first president of NOW, remembers Williams as a dedicated advocate. “She was the Fannie Lou Hamer of Mobile,” he said recently, an apt description, indeed. Longtime Mobile City Councilman Fred Richardson, another early member of NOW, called Williams “unrelenting in her many efforts to destroy every impediment” standing between African Americans and full equality.

Dorothy P. Williams gives a folding cot to a man in Resurrection City, an encampment of tents constructed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., during the Poor People’s Campaign. Photo courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History

Leader of March

Williams helped David Jacobs and his wife, Jacqueline, plan NOW’s first large-scale event: a memorial march in honor of the slain Martin Luther King Jr. Although Mobile officials denied them a permit, organizers nonetheless proceeded. An estimated 7,000 people participated in the processional. Williams was right in front.

That same day, at a city-sanctioned memorial service inside the municipal auditorium, Williams and others listened as local ministers and officials paid tribute to King. It was an event which many felt did not adequately meet the moment. The ceremony galled Williams. “I sat there a little while,” she remembered, “but it was burning in me. So, I said, ‘No, I’m not going to let them take over. I am just not going to do it.’” She moved quickly to the stage, took control of the microphone, and proceeded to denounce the “rotten” local officials who attempted to honor King’s life but ignore his work. The crowd joined Williams in her protest and the hastily organized memorial came to an abrupt conclusion.      

Williams recalled that it was often difficult to make her voice heard. “I just made myself be recognized,” she remembered. “I just stepped out there.” Sister Patricia Caraher, who taught in Mobile for a number of years and worked alongside Williams, remembers her as an independent thinker, someone unafraid to speak out when necessary. Williams did not varnish her opinion. If that sometimes made her unpopular or kept her from having a seat at the favored table, then that was simply the price her commitment demanded. “You have to hand it to people like her,” Caraher recalls. “She didn’t mind saying what needed to be said. It seems to me that’s the kind of thing that Jesus did. So, in that sense, she was a good Catholic and a good Christian.” 

Dorothy Parker Williams died in September 1985 at the age of 77. At her funeral mass, friends and family remembered her as a dedicated organizer and champion of causes great and small. In his eulogy, Underhill described one of his last visits to her home. He arrived to find her sleeping at her kitchen table, with newspaper clippings about social justice laying on her chest.

In memorializing Williams’s life and work, the editors of two Port City African American newspapers, the Mobile Beacon and the Inner-City News, both included a quote from the longtime activist, which she gave earlier that year at an awards ceremony in her honor: “Tell your children about the struggle. They need to know the price of freedom. The struggle isn’t over yet. Our children need to know that this is their struggle, too.”

Scotty E. Kirkland is author of the forthcoming book, “Jordan’s Stormy Banks: Politics and Race in Twentieth-Century Mobile.”

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