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The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Cecil Williams, pastor and civil rights activist, dies at 94

Rev. Cecil Williams was one of the first black men to attend SMU and led Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco.
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Photo courtesy of Bridwell Library Special Collections, SMU
Reverend Cecil Williams was best known as the radically inclusive pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco.

In the rich tapestry of American history, the Rev. Cecil Williams emerges as a luminous figure. His presence shines brightly in the history of the civil rights movement and of Southern Methodist University. On April 22, Williams died, succumbing to an undisclosed illness at the age of 94.

Williams was best known as the radically inclusive pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. There, he became an outspoken leader for marginalized groups in society, including the homeless, members of the LGBTQ community, and victims of AIDS, substance abuse and mental illness. Serving in that role for nearly four decades, he became a nationally-recognized figure for social justice.

Williams’ courage to take on tough issues was evident even as a young man, said Dr. Tamara Lewis, Professor for the Practice of Historical Theology at SMU. After getting his undergraduate degree from Huston–Tillotson, a historically Black university, he was one of the five Black men who first integrated SMU by attending the university’s Perkins School of Theology in 1952. All five students graduated from Perkins in 1955 with a Bachelor of Divinity postgraduate academic degree.

“Rev. Cecil Williams is a shining light in the history of Perkins School of Theology and SMU,” Lewis said. “He paved the way, being among the first five African American students admitted to Perkins and to SMU. As the first, they endured many challenges, including various forms of prejudice.”

Despite the challenges, Williams was an agent for positive change through all of his endeavors. As a student, he was a civil rights trailblazer. As a pastor, he pushed the church and society at large to recognize and help marginalized communities. Over a long career, he broke social norms and stood up to political leaders, the government, and the church establishment to fight for those in need.

Williams was born on Sept. 22, 1929, in the West Texas town of San Angelo, which at the time was segregated. According to various news reports, his grandfather had been a slave. He had five siblings and he was able to attend and graduate from Huston-Tillotson in 1952. He was then recruited to attend SMU when its leadership decided it was time for the university to desegregate. Following graduating from SMU, he was a minister for churches in New Mexico and Missouri over the next eight years until becoming the pastor of Glide Memorial Church in 1963.

Cecil Williams poses fourth from left with other Perkins graduates from his class. (Photo courtesy of Bridwell Library Special Collections, SMU)

It was at Glide Memorial where Williams began to take on tough social issues. A year after joining Glide, he founded the Council on Religion and the Homosexual in order to bridge the gap between the church and the homosexual community.

“One thing Rev. Williams was not afraid to do was challenge the way traditional Christianity had been used to oppress LGBTQ individuals, the way biblical teachings had been interpreted to demonize, shame, and ostracize individuals into hating themselves,” Lewis said. “He interpreted Scripture by emphasizing the love and acceptance of Christ, the equality of all persons before God, and the justice of God offered through the hope that Christ gives.”

Williams also challenged government officials for the decaying state of the country’s inner cities, including San Francisco, where he lived and preached.

“Rev. Williams angered a lot of leaders from various organizations because he did not back down on criticizing systemic influences, including the government, that contributed to the suffering and oppression of the inner cities,” Lewis said. “He refused to stand down when it came to ministering to the communities in the immediate vicinity of the church. These groups were struck down by the crack and heroin epidemics, butchered by gang violence, poverty and homelessness.”

Rather than wait for government assistance, Williams took to the streets himself to fulfill the physical and spiritual needs of the city’s most impoverished residents.

“He went out to the streets and ministered to the people where they were,” Lewis said. “In time, housing, food ministries, counseling, rehabilitation centers, job training, schools, as well as church bible studies, choirs, and worship services made a powerful difference.”

Throughout his ministry, the positive messages and realistic services that Williams delivered had an extraordinary effect on the city. As the pastor of Glide Memorial, the once poorly attended church, grew to over 10,000 congregants of varying races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations.

“He was a rock star,” said William Lawrence, retired Dean of SMU’s Perkins School of Theology. “He was a huge celebrity in San Francisco. He was very influential in the politics and the culture of the city. Most pastors never achieve that kind of social, political, cultural influence that he achieved. He transformed Glide Memorial from a relatively small, quiet, stable, somewhat isolated congregation into a church that had a huge impact on everything from health care to housing for the poor to political voting power.”

Lawrence attributes the many contributions of Williams to his unique personality.

“There was a certain fearlessness about Cecil,” Lawrence said. “He didn’t do well with anyone in authority.”

It was this courage that allowed Williams to play such an important role in the integration of SMU.

“It was a crucial event,” said Mark Stamm, Professor of Christian Worship at Perkins. “It was well before the integration of the rest of the university [and] well before the integration of many of the universities in the South … segregation was real and it was defended. [With the actions of Williams and SMU], those things were to some extent overcome.”

Almost 70 years after Williams’ efforts to desegregate SMU, about 7.6 percent of SMU’s undergraduate students are Black and over 38 percent are non-white.

“Rev. Williams’ life, vision and leadership will continue to inspire all of us at SMU,” SMU President R. Gerald Turner stated in a press release. “It took courage to break the color barrier at SMU, and we see his legacy in the diversity of our student body today,”

Not only did Williams break down social barriers, he served as a role model.

“Black students at Perkins are inspired to know that such a powerful leader attended this school,” Lewis said.

Lewis recalls Williams’ loving personality after meeting him in 2003.

“I remember him being so gentle and kind, with an amazing sense of humor, always laughing,” Lewis remarked. “It was amazing to me because I knew that he had faced police, mobs, bureaucracies, and other systems seeking to destroy his work. He was so compassionate and there were hundreds and hundreds of people from the Tenderloin district suffering from poverty, drug violence, and inner-city blight [who were] transformed by his ministries.”

No matter what position he took on social and political issues, Williams earned the respect of those who knew of his work. Following Williams’ death, Vice President Kamala Harris, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and California Governor Gavin Newson all commented glowingly about the reverend’s contributions.

“Over time, political leaders came to respect his commitment and tenacity and he was able to develop some of the biggest social service opportunities in the city,” Lewis said.

For its part, the SMU community will not soon forget Williams, Lewis said.

“He left a lasting legacy and his beginnings at SMU Perkins School of Theology, which opened its doors to him and other African American men who were the first to desegregate the university,” Lewis said. “Of this, the entire university community can be immensely proud.”

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