by Arman Deganian
President, DeKalb Bar Association
As I’m sure many of us do, I often find myself driving along Hosea L. Williams Drive paying no mind to the man for whom it is named, but I can’t help but wonder what distinction earns someone a green placard bearing his name on every block of a well-known stretch of road?
Perhaps it starts with humble beginnings, or rather the drive to seek growth despite arid ground. Hosea Lorenzo Williams was born the son of two blind teens on January 5, 1926 in Decatur County. He never met his father, and his mother died when he was only ten years old. An unremarkable childhood (apart from a near lynching in response to an alleged relationship with a white girl) turned a corner when he joined the army to serve in WWII in an all-black unit under General Patton. The war earned him a Purple Heart and a lifelong limp.
The war also seemed to change something internally. I’d love to ask him. Was it watching his fellow black soldiers lose their lives? Was it fighting for something bigger than himself? Perhaps this is where that distinction began. After returning, 23 year-old Hosea earned his high school diploma, followed by a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in chemistry. He went on the establish several successful chemical companies and a bonding company.
This alone sounds like a purposeful and distinguished life, but for Hosea this was just a precursor to why we know his name and drive his street today. Hosea became passionate about civil rights in the 1950s, and experienced an intense beating that resulted in five weeks in the hospital and a pink slip based solely on the color of his skin.
As a dedicated father to nine children, he committed himself to fighting for civil rights when a few of them couldn’t get sodas at a segregated lunch counter in Savannah. It’s no surprise Savannah was the first city in Georgia to have desegregated lunch counters.
. . . what distinction earns someone a green placard bearing his name on every block of a well-known stretch of road?”
His efforts over the years led to jail time (once spanning 65 days), beatings, tear gas, and ridicule. But Hosea also developed close friendships with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (he was standing next to him when he was assassinated), Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson. He founded the Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless program, which is still in operation today under his daughter Elizabeth, and started the annual Sweet Auburn Heritage Festival. He was a leader of the march in Selma, Alabama, and he served with the NAACP, SCLC, as a state senator, Atlanta City Councilman, and DeKalb County Commissioner.
Hosea’s life came to an end on November 16, 2000 after a three-year battle with cancer, but his legacy was just beginning. He was laid to rest in Atlanta’s Lincoln Cemetery wearing his trademark red shirt and sneakers, with denim overalls.
As I drive along Hosea L Williams Drive now, I’ll think differently about dedication to something larger than myself and about serving the people of Atlanta. Because from Hosea and others whose names identify our streets, to the nameless strangers we pass on them, it’s the people who bring life to our city.