One Black man’s lifelong battle with U.S. racism
Second of a three-part story
Vietnam War veteran Makolle Williams has lived a unique life in the course of his 73 years. However, according to him, during most of his adult life he has been unfairly subjected to racism and forced to defend himself against others mainly because he is a proud Black man whose military training and exposure to combat situations eventually led to a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that primed him to respond to violent provocation with violent self-defense.
As a result, trouble seems to have followed him almost at every turn since his honorable discharge from the service and return to the United States, including being advised by his hometown police chief not only to leave town but to leave the country “after I nearly killed” a plainclothes Erie County, Pennsylvania police officer in October 1973 when the officer walked up behind him while he was in a store “and punched me in the back as I was using a pay phone.”
Williams’ attorney quoted the police chief as saying, “There is a lot of water around this country, and I should see some of it by tomorrow” after he was falsely accused of assault and resisting arrest. His family and other community members “all contributed money for me to leave this country,” he says. “I was taken in the middle of the night to the airport, where I boarded a flight to Pittsburgh and from there to [New York’s] LaGuardia Airport and from there to Port Royal, Puerto Rico, and then on to Jamaica, West Indies.”
Thereafter he was “exiled” for nearly two years “until I was caught up [by] Jamaica’s Defense Force sweep of the islanders from the U.S. whom they suspected of causing trouble… I was arrested and put in Kingston’s Spanish Town Prison” on suspicion of being a spy, Williams recalls. He says he was falsely accused, but the Jamaican authorities ordered him to leave the island immediately.
Williams then returned to the States in 1975, but not to his hometown of Erie, where he was no longer welcome. Instead, he “decided to recreate myself” by changing his name. He resumed his journeyman machinist and mechanic career in Chicago and later became a traveling journeyman servicing nuclear power plants around the country for the rest of the decade, he says.
But he never could settle down because “of about 30 or more assaults on my residence and places of employment,” says Williams. Because he never went to court on the 1973 alleged assault charges, he still was considered a fugitive and an arrest warrant followed him everywhere.
“I got arrested 18 times in Chicago. Every time they locked me up, Pennsylvania refused to come get [me]” and the Chicago authorities would eventually release him. He was never convicted of the assault charge, which was finally expunged in February 2013 by an Erie County Court judge. Williams then relocated to Minnesota in 1979, where he has lived ever since.
“I’ve gotten good jobs everywhere I went, but everywhere I went I was the only Black journeyman machinist,” he says. “I respect everybody. I don’t pick fights. I try to be the kind of person who God calls His own. I raised my kids that way as well.
“I only [wanted] to come to work, do my eight hours and go home,” says Williams, but almost immediately after being hired he says he found himself disliked by some or all of the White workers who resented his “refusal to take a beating” attitude. “They hate my guts because I’m Black. Everywhere I went, I got attacked,” requiring him to file racial discrimination charges against his employers several times as a result.
“I won 99 percent of the time I went to court,” says Williams, who since 1985 has owned and operated his own technical engineering company. He filed in 1998 for a U.S. patent and trademark for a new paint roller design, which was awarded in 2006.
“I’m tired of fighting White guys on the job,” he admits. “Why should I have to get up every morning and say, ‘Is it because I’m Black?”
Williams is convinced that racism, dating back to the mid-1960s after he enlisted in the service, has been the main source of his problems. The military “forever changed me,” he points out. He also suffers painful flashbacks from time to time and has built a gazebo in his backyard for a place he can go and relieve stress. “I was tired of my wife listening to me at night,” says Williams.
“I go inside [the gazebo] and let it all hang out until it is out of my system. When I come out of there, I’m OK. If somebody has been through what I’ve been through, I think they’d [also build] a place to go, a place where they wouldn’t be disturbed and disturb anybody else. Let me have a time to scream and talk to God.”
Being a Black man in America seems like a life sentence, notes Williams, adding that being a military veteran who was honorably discharged means nothing to some people. He points out that he has moved several times since living in the Twin Cities area because some White neighbors “hated the fact that I am a Black man, period.” He also cringes whenever news reports on shootings of Black males occur, often at the hands of police.
Williams believes he has “exercised restraint in the face of such extreme racism for over 50 years.” He has been forced to defend himself from “racial abuse” ranging from taunting to “outright violence” from workers, neighbors and others over the years.
“I didn’t have a chance to make an adjustment when I came [back from the military],” concludes Williams. “I’ve been attacked all of my life.”
Correction: The caption on a photo in last week’s part one of this story should have read, “Makolle Williams in his high school junior year” rather than “Makolle Williams in his junior high year.”
Next week: Expert insights on racism and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.