One Black man’s lifelong battle with U.S. racism
First of a three-part story
When Makolle Williams watched the disturbing videos of Eric Garner’s unwarranted death in Staten Island, New York City last year after a police officer put him in a choke-hold for 15 seconds, it reaffirmed his belief that racism is deep-seated in this country. He fully believed this because he has personally experienced so much of it, beginning with his service during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and intensifying after he returned home.
“After serving America during the Vietnam War in the United States Air Force, I came home to my mother and father’s house and was followed by two White supremacists who believed that I did not deserve to drive [my] new car and attempted to murder me,” recalls Williams of the April 1966 attack in Erie, Pennsylvania that eventually resulted in a death and a nearly four-year prison sentence that was later commuted and expunged.
Williams, now 73 years old, agreed earlier this year to tell his story to the MSR at a time when police violence against Blacks, especially Black males, has become widely recognized as endemic throughout the nation. Williams’s story exemplifies the racial abuse endured by untold numbers of Black men for generations. He has provided extensive documentation corroborating the details of a lifelong struggle that we can only summarize here.
“I never saw myself as being anything other than an American,” Williams begins. “I never had to deal with the fact that I am a Black man in America until I got into the Air Force.”
His parents for the most part shielded him from racism during his formative years in his hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. “My mother and father taught me a great deal of dignity and my cultural heritage from slavery to their own experience [growing up in the South], from being a sharecropper on the way up to the time I was in high school.”
Williams says he saw the stories his parents told as just that — stories — simply because he grew up in the North where things were different and the racism less overt. After all, he was readily accepted by his peers, elected student council president in junior high school and class president in his sophomore and junior years in high school. “I didn’t really fathom racism — it was a word. It didn’t have any meaning [to me].”
After graduation in 1962, Williams enlisted in the Air Force. During basic training in Texas his life took an ugly turn and racism became much more than a meaningless word.
“When [his superiors] started calling me ‘Airman Boy,’ ‘Coon’ and ‘Ni**er Airman,’ it floored me,” continues Williams. He recalls one painful incident when his drill sergeant found his high school yearbook in his locker with classmate pictures that included best-wishes from White females.
Even though Williams was a squad leader, “He marched me out of the barracks, made me stand at attention, and told me in these exact words: ‘We ain’t gonna stand for this, ni**er-boy. This ni**er-boy ain’t going to do this down here. You’re ain’t going to do this in my outfit. Something bad is going to happen to you, you hear?”
In front of everyone, the sergeant tore up every single yearbook picture and told him to pick each piece up, all the while calling him derogatory names. The sergeant’s harassment continued as he encouraged other White airmen “to put me in my place.”
After that, Williams continued to be the target of his White superiors and fellow White airmen. “They didn’t like how I looked them in the eye when I talked to them. They were used to the other Blacks who were from the South and looked the other way when they talked to them. I wasn’t used to doing that, to being subservient to anyone.”
That experience hardened him and made him, as he describes it, more machine-like as far as his feelings were concerned. “I had no conscience, because if you get abused long enough, you lose feelings for others,” recalls Williams, who became notorious for “detecting, subduing and taking down anyone that failed to meet certain protocol while on assignment” in advanced training at the Air Force Academy. He was assigned squad leader to a special security group at the Strategic Air Command.
Williams describes his wartime service experience as “bloody, very bloody,” and tells us that he returned home determined that “I would never take a beating from anyone” and “would never submit” to any physical assault. His special forces training in hand-to-hand fighting had prepared him well for such self-defense. This training and what would many years later be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder brought him no end of trouble as a combat veteran in civilian life.
After he was honorably discharged in 1965, Williams returned home, got married and became a father. But the hating didn’t stop. He found himself just another Black man in a racist country, not a war veteran also trained and certified as a journeyman machinist.
Things took another ugly turn there in front of his parents’ house that night of April 23, 1966, when two White males ran down his car, “grabbed me around the throat [and] tried to choke me to death. I used a pen knife and hit them both in the heart. I knew they were dead, but they didn’t die right away. I was covered head to foot in blood.”
One of the men later died in the hospital. It wasn’t until years later that Williams learned the real reason behind the attack: One of the men was jealous of his very friendly girlfriend who worked at the soda shop where Williams went to nightly to buy a hot dog and a shake for his pregnant wife. The boyfriend started following Williams home and held personal stakeouts. That fateful night, the man and his friend waited for Williams to come to his parents’ home where he was temporarily living at the time.
Williams was initially charged with first-degree murder and spent over a year in jail waiting for trial because an impartial jury couldn’t be found — every potential juror admitted that they wanted Williams to get the death penalty. A judge later persuaded Williams to plead guilty to second-degree murder and waive his right to a jury trial. He also promised him a light sentence; instead he “gave [me] five to 10 years.”
Williams describes being moved around from prison to prison and kept in solitary confinement, likening this to being a POW. Finally, he got to a prison where the warden saw Williams in a different light and arranged it so he could take college courses.
Eventually witnesses who hadn’t been called by prosecutors in his trial went to the Pennsylvania governor and gave sworn testimony on the events that transpired that night. The governor as a result commuted Williams’ sentence.
“I spent three years, three months and seven days [in prison],” says Williams. “When I was home, I had to change my identity because there still were death threats on me, and death threats on my family.” He had become a marked man among some members of the city’s police force who had known Williams’ attackers and wanted to even the score. “Everywhere I went, there were White people who saw me and pointed me out, and I would get attacked.”
Williams became a teacher at a vocational school. But he also had a couple of failed marriages, and he found that his unwillingness to submit to abuse made it hard to avoid trouble. “I would go to work and come home with my fists swollen up. It wasn’t a long, drawn-out fight — I’d hit ‘em one time [and] their face blew up and they’d go unconscious. If I hit you twice, you were really broken up. I’d [either] drive away or walk away.”
Another fateful encounter occurred in October 1973 while he was in an Erie, Pennsylvania supermarket and a plainclothes police officer struck him in the back. “I didn’t know he was a cop. He was just another White boy.” Williams instinctively struck the officer back and was arrested.
“They had me chained to the wall, feet apart. And they were deciding who was going to beat me up. I’m the only Black guy in town who killed somebody White and lived to tell about it.”
Williams was later charged with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest. A local NAACP lawyer brokered a meeting with the local police chief, who found out that his officers wanted nothing more than to beat Williams up at any opportunity. The chief finally had enough and gave Williams 24 hours to leave town for his own protection.
“The whole family got together and got me a plane ticket that night,” he remembers. “It was a one-way ticket…and $300 cash. They sent me to Pittsburgh, then to New York, then to Miami. Then I went to the West Indies and South America.”
Next week: Williams describes his “exile” from the U.S. and his troubled return.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.