By Lawrence D. Weiss
For Senior Voice 

Cal Williams: A community activist comes to Alaska


May 1, 2024 | View PDF

Photo courtesy Cal Williams

Cal Williams at a book-signing at the 2024 Bettye Davis African American Summit in Anchorage, Feb. 10.

Senior Voice contributor Lawrence Weiss sat down in late March for an interview with longtime Anchorage resident Cal Williams. Here is their Q&A.

People often refer to you as a "community activist." Why is that?

Just prior to coming here, I was involved with CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, in Monroe, Louisiana -marching picketing, doing voter registration and voter education with CORE-the summer of 1964. Then in September of 1964, I, along with six other black students, was accepted at Northeast Louisiana State College, which had been segregated until that moment that we applied and were accepted. I don't know if they knew we were Black. I don't think they did.

Then, everybody knew it was just a white school and nobody had applied, but we applied and got accepted. And that was September of 1964. I came here to Alaska in January 1965. Having completed that lesson-my only intent was to integrate the school, not to stay there -yet, I don't know. It got interrupted by this friend who said, "Hey, you ought to come to Alaska." So, a fork in the road.

I don't know if I would have stayed and graduated there, but at the fork in the road I turned left and came to Alaska. Having done that, I started working immediately at Providence Hospital and, later, Alaska Psychiatric Institute. But I ran for the presidency of the NAACP in 1968. I became president because of this inflated reputation that preceded anything that I had said or done. "He was down in the South. He's a real civil rights worker. We need him for the President." And I got elected president of the NAACP.

I worked with the Native corporations on Native land claims issues. I worked with Housing and Urban Development to get the F and S apartments condemned and torn down. This was a slum area in Fairview. We had those torn down.

We had an agreement from the city to allow neighborhood people to learn asbestos removal. A training opportunity came from that effort. And so I got, I guess, the unofficial title of, "He's an activist."

What activities are you involved in these days? I know you're teaching a film course with OLE! [Opportunities for Lifelong Education] because my wife took it.

I am currently in the OLE! program. I am the chaplain at Chappie James Post 34 of the American Legion. I am a deputy grand knight with the

St. Anthony's Parish Knights of Columbus. I also direct the choir at St. Anthony's Parish Church. I do a gospel Filipino combination mass there. I am the first vice president of the Anchorage chapter of the NAACP. I am the president of the Bartlett Club, named after Senator Bob Bartlett. We meet weekly at the Anchorage Senior Activity Center at noon and present programs of interest. We have been focusing on the candidates for mayor, with one coming each week, but the election is winding down now.

I am a member of the senior activity center, and I'm in and out of that building, often with different programs. In fact, last night I played the piano there for a presentation done by David Reamer who presented a history of films and movies made in and about Alaska.

Do you have thoughts about leading your kind of life, where so much has involved making people feel better, helping them with their needs. Yours has been a remarkable life of service.

My life of service began with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which occurred seven days after my birthday. My grandmother and my mother went into service basically to help with the war effort. I was witness to that because most of the men, including my father, disappeared and went off to war, and I watched my grandmother helping people throughout the community.

Then she graduated with a class of licensed practical colored nurses. These were women that they had picked to provide treatment to colored men coming back from the war, because they didn't want white women tending colored men, all shot up, and taking care of them medically and stuff. So they, we had to create some colored nurses. My grandmother benefited by that, having been in the class. She eventually became the president of the licensed practical colored nurses.

Photo courtesy Cal Williams

Cal Williams received a Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

That segregation kind of became a blessing for me -that coupled with my father's planning allotment going into the military that had money coming for me monthly. My grandmother was able to take that money and put me in the Catholic school across the street from my house. So, my life has been, I like to say "blessed," some like to say "lucky," and some like to say "bouncing from one opportunity to the next," without me having a plan in hand. I was just responding to a strong pull from somebody else's direction.

Throughout my whole life it was just finding out what to do to make somebody happy, and doing it. Service. And it has served me well because I don't get frustrated with some plan that I had that didn't come through because I had no plan. I just was trusting that God or somebody was gonna bring to me what my next step should be.

Note: This interview was conducted March 20, 2024. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.

Author Bio

Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.


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