Civil Rights Tour: Protest - Bishop Smallwood Williams, Civil Rights Agitator

1100 New Jersey Avenue NW

On February 9, 1954, Rev. Smallwood E. Williams stood up at a public meeting in a downtown church and called for the resignations of most members of the DC Board of Education, as well as of School Superintendent Hobart M. Corning. The board had recently voted 8-to-1 not to acknowledge inequalities in the dual school system, much less do anything about them. 

By the time Bishop Williams (1907-1991) called for the resignation of the members of the Board of Education, he was already a well-known preacher and prominent civil rights activist. Williams began his career in DC as a street preacher at the corner of Seventh and O streets NW. In 1927, he organized the Bible Way Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ; as a bishop in the denomination, Williams used the bully pulpit to promote civil rights.

In 1948, soon after President Harry S. Truman abolished segregation in the U.S. military, Williams, then chairman of the National Prayer Service for Brotherhood, joined other civil rights leaders in urging the president to end segregation in DC as well.

Four years later when Bishop Smallwood’s son, Wallace, was just 5 years old, the two of them staged a sit-in at the whites-only Wheatley Elementary School. It was 1952, and as part of a plan to ease crowding in the “colored” schools, the Board of Education had transferred Wallace from Young Elementary School to another school much farther from his home at 1328 Montello Avenue NE. Wheatley, however, was just one block away with plenty of room for new students, so Williams sought to enroll Wallace there. Although he gave up his quest, the minister’s sit-in garnered attention in the local press.

In 1962, just as the Civil War Centennial Commission put the final touches on its planned centennial celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, it hit a bump. Williams, who was president of the Washington branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, threatened a boycott if the Commission didn’t add an African American speaker to the lineup. The Commission quickly acquiesced, and Federal Judge Thurgood Marshall spoke at the September 22 event at the Lincoln Memorial. The next year, Williams joined other Washington clergy to form the Interreligious Committee on Race Relations, which urged passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1963 (finally signed in 1964). Over the years Williams also served in leadership positions in the DC branch of the NAACP, DC Democratic Central Committee, National Negro Council, and Washington Home Rule Committee.