After decades in public service, former 8th District state Sen. Hardy Williams died Jan. 7.
Often being in the right place at the right time can form one’s destiny, as Point Breeze native and newly elected state Rep. Kenyatta Johnson well knows.
In 1998, after graduating from college, Johnson was walking near his old residence at 18th and Wharton streets when he ran into then-retired state Sen. Hardy Williams. Having admired him from afar for years, Johnson introduced himself and asked Williams if he would be willing to speak at the Philadelphia Chapter of City Year, a national youth organization of which Johnson was a member, about the importance of community service.
To Johnson’s surprise, the senator agreed.
City Year got its guest speaker, but Johnson met the man who would inspire him to pursue a lifetime of community service and activism, eventually leading to politics, Johnson said days after Williams’ Jan. 7 death at age 78 at the Kearsley Nursing Community in West Philadelphia due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
“My heart is saddened, but I’m inspired by his legacy,” the 36-year-old said. “He would mentor me and talk to me about advocating for the needs of people and putting the needs of people first. I was blessed and fortunate to get a lot of the wisdom and learn the best practices from a social advocacy standpoint.”
Born April 14, ’41, and raised in West Philly, Williams spent most of his career in public service before retiring in ’98.
In ’71, he was the first African-American candidate to run for mayor. At the helm of the black independent politics movement, Williams amassed a sizable turnout at the polls and, though unsuccessful in his bid, was credited with paving the way for others who would eventually go on to serve in City Hall and elsewhere.
In ’72, he organized the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus before going on to serve five terms in the state’s House of Representatives. In ’82, he was elected to the state Senate, representing the 8th District, which covers South, Southwest and West Philadelphia, as well as Delaware County, and served there until his retirement.
A product of the Philadelphia School System, Williams attended Cheyney University and graduated from Penn State University, where he was the first African-American on the basketball team. In ’52, he earned a degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. During the Korean War, Williams served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, who succeeded his father in the same office in ’98, when he was elected, said he believes his father’s political legacy was about knocking down barriers.
“I believe that Barack Obama was president of the United States because of Hardy Williams. Mayor [Maynard] Jackson [of Atlanta], [Mayor] Coleman Young [of Detroit], they all decided in the late ’60s and ’70s to take on the barriers of exclusion. They and my father took the outcome of the civil rights movement and used it aggressively in the political arena,” Williams told the Review.
Even before Johnson had his fateful meeting with the retired senator, he knew of the man’s work.
“He was just one that was always out there on the forefront. He was truly a man of the people,” Johnson said.
It was that talent Anthony Williams believes contributed to his father’s success as a man and politician.
“My father had a way to connect with people in an unusually effective manner, a very personal manner. He was a people’s champion, not just politics, but cousins, friends. He took his passion, his intellect and skill to help people and put it in the public domain,” Williams said.
From their initial meeting, Johnson and the late senator developed a rapport and it wasn’t long before the young man found himself volunteering for Williams, anything from administrative work to community organization. Though retired from public office, Williams was still active in community service throughout the city. Some of the groups he is credited with organizing are Crisis Intervention Network; Black Family Services Inc.; Organized Anti-Crime Community Network; and 8th District AIDS Task Force, among others.
Johnson, who admits he had “one foot in the street and one foot trying to do the right thing,” credits Williams with setting him right.
“He played a pivotal role in my life because I was headed down the wrong path. He not only helped me grow as a community activist, but as a young man,” the state representative said, adding, he went to work for his mentor’s son in 2002.
Monday marks the 16th annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service where thousands of volunteers will chip in to better their neighborhoods at dozens of Philadelphia events including about 30 locally.
The holidays may be behind us but the giving season continued as a large number of volunteers including students from the World Communications Charter School, 512 S. Broad St., and members of the Church of the Redeemer, 1440 S. 24th St., rolled up their sleeves Monday to work in the soup kitchen at Tindley Temple United Methodist Church, 750 S. Broad St.