Celebrated civil rights leader Hosea Williams was threatened by a lynch mob at the age of 14 in Attapulgus, Georgia, for befriending a white girl. Even after this terrifying experience of racial violence, Mr. Williams enlisted to serve in World War II as part of the all-black unit of General George Patton’s Third Army. During a battle in France, an artillery shell hit Mr. Williams’s platoon, killing the other 12 soldiers and wounding Mr. Williams; when the ambulance transporting him to the hospital was hit by another artillery shell, Mr. Williams was again the lone survivor and spent 13 months at a British hospital recovering from his injuries.
After the war, Mr. Williams headed home to Attapulgus with a Purple Heart and the assistance of a cane. While he was wearing his uniform, Mr. Williams was brutally assaulted by a mob of white men at the bus station in Americus, Georgia, after he attempted to drink out of the white-only drinking fountain. The mob left him for dead. People at the bus station called the town’s black undertaker, who found a pulse and brought Mr. Williams to the Veterans Administration hospital. Lying in the hospital for eight weeks due to his new, “peacetime” injuries, Mr. Williams found himself lamenting that he “had fought for the wrong side.”
Nearly lynched, nearly killed abroad, and nearly lynched again upon returning home, Hosea Williams survived and continued to fight for human rights. He went on to help organize the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, served as Executive Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and was jailed more than 125 times for participating in civil rights demonstrations. Mr. Williams relentlessly challenged his country to honor at home the ideals of freedom and equality it fought for abroad.98