Reverend A. Cecil Williams

In 1968, during his retirement ceremony, Bishop Tippett described Glide under the direction of Tippett, Durham, McIlvenna, and the Reverend A. Cecil Williams, as “the realization of a lifelong dream…. Glide is really serving the people, and that’s what we always wanted. That what it’s all about – to help people live more adventurous, more worthy, more meaningful lives.”115 He said Williams and Durham “were the ones who saw that the dream began to emerge. And now the preaching of Cecil has really made the dream come true. We have here one of the greatest sermonizers in our church or any other.”116

Albert Cecil Williams was born in San Angelo, Texas on September 22, 1929, to Sylvia Lizzie Best and Cuney Earl Williams.117 The Williams lived in the home owned by Sylvia’s parents, Jack and Phyllis Best, at 201 W. 8th Street, in the “black section” of San Angelo.118 Jack Best, known as “Papa Jack” to the Williams children, was a former slave who moved to the Southwest to work as a cowboy.119 Phyllis Best, known as Lizzie, was half American Indian.

Cecil was the second youngest of six children: Johnnie Mae, Earl Jr., Arthur J., Claudius Maurice, and Rudy E. Cecil’s childhood nickname was “Rev,” short for Reverend.120

“Like many black families whose options seemed beyond their control,” the Williams family attended church every other day of the week.121 Wesley Methodist Church, according to Williams, “provided a frame of reference, a safe meeting place, and a context in which to view our lives.”122

Growing up black in Texas in the 1930s was difficult and at times excruciatingly painful. “Blacks were niggers in substance even if we were ‘Nigra’ or ‘colored’ in name,” writes Williams.123 “There were three kinds of public restrooms in those days; ‘Men,’ ‘Women,’ and ‘Colored.’”124 The railroad tracks marked the unofficial boundary between the black section of town to the north and the white community and business district to the south. Williams referred to the dirt path along the tracks as Freedom Path: “When we emerged from the white community and set foot on Freedom Path, we knew we’d made it once again. No harm would come to us there.”125

Cecil Williams was a successful student, serving as class president each year of elementary and high school. “If only within the framework of young black children growing up in dust-blown West Texas, I was already a leader. Many of the adults, including Mother most of all, indicated with their praise that somehow I would escape the boundaries of San Angelo and clear the barriers that restricted our community.”126 He attended the all-black Sam Huston College in Austin, Texas, where he served each year as class president. During summers he worked as a janitor at First Methodist Church of San Angelo, where his father worked for many years as a janitor. Williams says of First Methodist: “whose all-white congregation was Christian enough to pay blacks as janitors even if we were not permitted to pray there.”127

By the age of 19, Williams had obtained his Exhorter’s License128, the first step toward a career in religion.129 “I was going to become a minister, the best they ever saw. Step by step. Four years of college, then seminary, then an appointment to a large black church in a big city like Dallas.”

At Sam Huston College, Williams met J. Leonard Farmer, the first black to earn a Ph.D. in Texas.130 Leonard almost instantly became a mentor to Williams, who describes Leonard as “an eccentric who defied traditional order by creating a chaos of his own…. He shocked me. He said that [Jesus’s] legacy was one of radical, earthly action rather than heavenly, spiritual peace. He raised questions about the biblical text and railed against the presumed order of theology. He injected chaos into theology and my life…. He was a walking revolt who ran so deep that part of me wanted to be just like him…. J. Leonard Farmer had given me a sense of pride and confidence. But more than that he’d shown me that one could defy order and still survive.”

131 After graduating from Sam Huston College with a B.A. in Sociology 1952, Cecil Williams attended the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas for three years. He was one of five black students admitted that year, a small group chosen to integrate the seminary.132 Williams was a rising star at Perkins. A few black ministers in the Methodist Church called him their “son in the ministry.” “They never tired of predicting great things for me. I was their choice, the one to carry forth the great tradition on which their own lives and careers rested.”133

He worked as a student pastor in the church of I.B. Loud, one of the most powerful black ministers in Dallas. Loud often let the student pastors preach. Taking a cue from his mentor J. Leonard Farmer, it was in these early sermons that Cecil Williams began to revolt against racism in the church. Williams includes an example in his autobiography:

Look at a church that rejects people based on color…. We’re all black, aren’t we? Try to go into a white church…. They won’t let us in. They’ve never let us in. They’ve never let us in…. Now we must ask ourselves: What kind of Christianity is that? I say to you right here and right now that the church must change its racist policies if it is to be what it says it is. Not somewhere else. Not some other time. Right here! Now!134

As a graduate of Southern Methodist University, Williams writes that his secret dream was to become “the first black minister named to pastor a white church in Texas. Still longing for acceptance. Still yearning to make it. Knowing I never would be accepted in the white church, white world.”135 At the same time, he felt that he could never be “what the black ministers wanted [him] to be.”136 In other words: tolerated, but not accepted, by the white church. “That was their idea of making it.”137

Cecil Williams’ first appointment as a minister, in 1956, was to Hobbs, New Mexico. He was appointed to Hobbs by the black bishop of the West Texas Conference of the Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. He soon found out that he was sent to Hobbs to create a Methodist Church for the small black community who had started attending the white Methodist Church. According to Williams, he was “imported” to Hobbs to “relieve the white church of any racial embarrassment.”138 While living in Hobbs, Williams married a school teacher named Evelyn Robinson. They remained in Hobbs for a year before being offered the job of instructor and Dean of Men at Sam Huston College, which had merged with Tillotson College and became Huston-Tillotson.

From 1956 to 1959 he taught and served as chaplain at Huston-Tillotson College. Soon into his tenure there, Williams heard that he would be appointed minister of Wesley Methodist Church in Austin, a “real plum” opportunity.139 However, when the decision came to a vote, astonishingly the black ministers in the conference blocked the appointment. Williams’ took this to mean that the black ministers were saying, “You ain’t learned your lesson yet, boy.”140

Williams left Texas in a “storm of tears. Soothing and violent. Tears of hurt, rate, joy, loneliness, fear.”141

Beginning in 1959, Williams began graduate work in sociology at the University of Texas, Austin, and also studied social ethics and pastoral psychology at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California.142

Around 1960, Williams moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where he served as minister of the St. James Methodist Church. While there, he was finally able to pastor a congregation that included both races.

In 1963, he was minister at a church in Kansas City, Missouri when he was offered the position of director of community involvement at the Glide Urban Center at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco.143