Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” Few people have embodied the answer to this question more than Baltimore OUTloud’s co-founder and co-owner Jim Williams. Throughout Jim’s life, his strong work ethic, passion, humility, and heart have marked his accomplishments as labor organizer, advocate for people with AIDS, and gay activist.
“I was so young and focused on what I was doing that I didn’t realize the history that was being made,” Jim told me recounting his life. Born at home in Shreveport, Louisiana, on April 9th, 1935, with only a midwife attending, Jim’s journey immediately began with a bang. “I was circumcised right on the kitchen table,” he laughs.
Two years later, Jim and his family moved to the suburb of St. Bernard Parish, outside of New Orleans. His taste for hard work started showing, when at ten, he was working shining shoes in the local barber shop at 25 cents a pop. While attending Arabi High School (now Chalmette High School), Jim was elected the first male cheerleader. “We would play football games across the Mississippi River and ride a school bus,” Jim recounted. “We would get into a fight after the games. I’d beat people with my megaphone and run like crazy to get onto the bus.”
Jim went on to attend Arkansas College (now Lyon College), a Presbyterian school. “I was studying to be a minister because I was very active in the church. I went there on a Presbyterian church scholarship.” While attending, Jim went on to be elected the student body president and preached on weekends to smaller churches throughout Arkansas.
It was during his Junior year in college Jim got married. “In seminary, they didn’t have housing for married students, so we lived in a one-room dormitory. During my senior year, my wife taught school while we were living in this one room. So, it wasn’t a very happy situation. I was also having questions if I wanted to stay in the ministry or not. So I answered an ad in the newspaper to teach and I went on to teach eighth grade English at North Clayton High School for three years.” Jim and his wife went on to have two children, April Carol and James Lance. “She has since passed away, but we were divorced prior to her passing,” Jim says.
While teaching, Jim became very active in the state affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA), the national teachers’ union. “I was elected teacher-of-the-year for two years, and then was elected president of the state Classroom Teachers Association. To be elected that young – I was in my twenties – was such an honor. I then became very active in the NEA, which hired me as the first Southeast regional director. They opened a regional office in Atlanta, Georgia. We were responsible for 11 states and Puerto Rico. However, we really had 22 state associations because the school systems were still segregated, and the NEA associations were also segregated. My task became to coordinate the merger of all these teacher associations in the South, in addition to dealing with all the issues in Puerto Rico.”
Jim would stay with the NEA for the next 25 years. “In Alabama,” Jim continued, “I participated in the closing segments of the Selma to Montgomery march. I distinctly remember a sign at the airport in Montgomery that said, ‘Welcome to the Cradle of the Confederacy.’ So that should give you an idea of the atmosphere for teaching and all during that time.”
The American Teachers Association (originally the National Association for Colored Teachers), was a separate organization that worked on issues of educational equality in tandem with the NEA. As racial desegregation advanced in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, both organizations charted a path towards unification into what became the modern NEA. That dream was eventually realized when presidents of both organizations signed a historical merger agreement in 1966.
“I was in the Atlanta regional office and eventually became the first regional director. We would have meetings, and I would invite both segregated groups to Atlanta. It was interesting because I would have two white and two black leaders, and we would sit down and eat. It was the first time some of them had ever eaten as black and whites together. Even though they’d been in the same school system for over 20 years, they had never met each other!
Louisiana and Mississippi were two of the last holdouts to integration. “My goal was to work with those states to comply. In Mississippi, we’d have meetings there and we’d go into all the schools. However, we had to keep changing the license plates on our rental cars we were using because we were being followed, and all kinds of interesting things, like threats, were happening to us.”
It was during this time that Jim received a call in Atlanta from his bosses in Washington, DC, asking if he knew about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I told them that you can’t be from Atlanta and not know who Dr. King was. I didn’t personally know him, but I knew of him.” Jim’s bosses wanted him to get a statement from Dr. King regarding a teacher’s union local in Chicago which was going through some issues with collective bargaining. “So, I went to his church, and after services I went over to shake his hand. I introduced myself and asked if I could talk to him privately. We went into his office afterward, and I explained to him the situation in Chicago. He asked me to leave my contact information and that he would have to investigate and do some checking. After investigating, he called me, and agreed to meet with the other local and we set up an appointment.” Jim continued, “To me, at the time, he wasn’t as famous as he is now. I would run into him more from time to time and he became more famous from his marches. This actually took place before the Selma march, as well.”
Jim continued to work with the NEA from the 1960s until the 1980s. “It was while at the NEA that I came out. In our Atlanta office, we had a guy who worked for me who was gay, and who represented our office as the ‘gay person.’ And then they had a meeting of the whole association where our offices were, and they had a program – a panel. His name was Paul, and he came to me and said, ‘Jim, you know, you really should be the one on this panel, and not me, because you know more about it and it’s time that they know.’ So, he came up to my office, and I went down and sat in his chair. Others were asking me, ‘Is Paul sick?’ I just told them that I’ll make that announcement when I speak on his behalf in the meeting. So, when they introduced me, I came out before the whole group. By this time, I was still pretty young, and I had already left my wife. Some people were surprised, but others weren’t. The group in the auditorium was 600 people. So, I went up and talked about how important it was and I got a standing ovation. The state executive came by and gave me a big hug. Then I was starting to get all kinds of flowers and phone calls because I was the head of a unit. At that time, I was an administrator, and it was an unusual thing to do, but it was important to me.”
Jim was also instrumental in helping former-President Jimmy Carter secure an important endorsement that would help him to get elected. “The NEA would hold a meeting every year of the state presidents and the NEA directors at different locations. So, we had this meeting set up, and Jimmy Carter was in his final year as governor of Georgia. He hadn’t announced yet, but he was getting ready to. So, he asked us to come speak for this small group. The teachers that were there from Georgia refused to be on the stage with him or introduce him because they were having a salary dispute in the state legislature. So, being the only other person from Georgia, they had me do it. They had me introduce him, and on the way to the airport from the meeting he said, ‘Jimmy, I need to work on getting the endorsement of the NEA, and I’m not going to get that unless I make peace with the folks back in Georgia.’ So, he told me that he had this idea to invite them to come to the governor’s mansion for lunch. I told him that it wasn’t a good idea, and that he should go to their office, meeting them on their turf and it would thrill them to death that he came to see them there.” Jim continued, “A few weeks later I received a letter that said, ‘Dear Jimmy’ – we were both Jimmys. ‘Dear Jimmy – Thank you for your advice and counsel. It will make me a better candidate and a better president. Your friend, Jimmy.’ So, that’s my Jimmy Carter story. The NEA had never endorsed a presidential candidate before Jimmy Carter, so I became kind of like the point person for arranging things. He spoke to me at a reception in the White House in 1978. I worked with him later on during his presidency when he spoke at the NEA assembly of over 10,000 delegates. We had lots of meetings with him during his presidency.”
Jim went on to explain that he went on to work with a coalition of the NEA and the National Association of School Nurses, and the American Academy of Pediatrics to work on an educational curriculum to teach about HIV and AIDS. Jim recounted, “I had Ryan White speak at our NEA convention in New Orleans in 1988.” During this time, White, became a national poster child for HIV/AIDS in the US after failing to be re-admitted to school following a diagnosis of AIDS. “He was just a kid, but when he spoke, he spoke about how they wouldn’t let him come to school because of his disease. He said that the thing that hurt him the most was that when he saw the news, the teachers who were opposing him to come back were his favorite teachers. During his speech, you could have heard a pin drop. He received a standing ovation. The next day, I took him and his mom to the airport. While we were there, I noticed Ryan was over playing with a huge, life-size bear that was for sale. I asked him mom what he was doing, and she said that it reminded him of the one he had played with when he was in the hospital. So, I went over, bought the bear, and bought a seat for it on the airplane for him to take it home with him. He was quite a character, too. He was a very, very smart kid.”
Following his retirement from the NEA, Jim worked for several Washington, DC, nonprofits, including Food & Friends. Jim then became employed as executive director of Movable Feast. When Jim joined Movable Feast, it was going through a transition and he was instrumental in revitalizing the organization and expanding its scope. After retiring from Movable Feast, he became executive director of AIDS Interfaith Residential Services (AIRS), another AIDS service organization that needed a strong administrator. Because of Jim’s superb business sense, strong commitment to serving the community and especially people with AIDS, he was an obvious choice and quickly helped stabilize AIRS.
While working for Movable Feast, Jim met Mike Chase, who was then editor of Gay Life newspaper. They were instant friends. When Chase’s spouse Lee Mooney, Joe Berg, and Jim Becker decided to launch Baltimore OUTloud Jim was an obvious choice to join the effort. Following the sudden death of Lee Mooney and the retirement of Mike Chase, Jim and Jim Becker continued to keep the newspaper publishing with the help of Mary Taylor, Steve Charing, and a host of other dedicated staff and volunteers that have served as the backbone of the newspaper from its inception.
Jim announced this month that he is retiring from the newspaper.
Co-publisher and executive editor for Baltimore OUTloud Jim Becker, reflected on his work with Jim. “It has been an absolute honor and pleasure to work with Jim. His keen sense of business and his years of commitment to the gay community and our liberation provided the perfect balance to keep the newspaper on track in good and bad times. When he arrived in Baltimore to become executive director of Moveable Feast, he quickly adopted his new city and became a force in the nonprofit organizations providing services to people with AIDS. We are so fortunate to have him as one of the founders of Baltimore OUTloud. l will miss his sage advice and wish him all of the best in this much-deserved retirement.”
Baltimore OUTloud associate editor Mary Taylor, added, “Over the past eight years, I’ve come to appreciate the leadership of Jim Williams. His fatherly guidance has encouraged me and others at this paper to shine. Our relationship grew so much that I began to refer to him as ‘Daddy’ because he lectured like one. It has been an honor to work along side Jim. I thank him for his guidance, support and faith that he has had in me to be part of Baltimore OUTloud. To me, he will always be Daddy and will always have a place in my heart.”
As Jim himself reflected on his time with the paper, he added, “I think it’s one of my best accomplishments. It hasn’t always been easy, but what we do is a real service to this community. We were told we wouldn’t last more than six months, and we are now in our 17th year. This paper has allowed for so many opportunities for so many people.”
- Since 2011, arts writer Frankie Kujawa has covered a wide scope of entertainment stories and celebrity interviews. From the late Carrie Fisher and LGBTQ icon George Takei to comedians Lily Tomlin and Kathy Griffin to performer Idina Menzel, Kujawa’s candid interview ability brings readers past the byline and into the heart of the story. His unbiased previews of Baltimore-Washington’s theatre scene have allowed readers an inside glimpse of today’s most popular local and national performances. A Baltimore-native, Kujawa is proud to call Charm City his home.