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Memoirs and Lessons From Junius Williams, a Giant of the Civil Rights Movement

02/26/2014 08:58 am ET | Updated Apr 28, 2014

Thirty one years before U.S. Senator Cory Booker moved to Newark, Junius Williams, another dynamic, African-American Yale Law School graduate moved to the same city, with ambitions much like Booker's. He would fight the party bosses, make big changes, and run for mayor. Both men had success, but their paths diverged, personifying divisions among those seeking to address America's urban problems.

While both agree on building a grassroots base in the neighborhoods and social issues, like gay marriage and alternatives to incarceration, Booker has sought the beneficence of Silicon Valley and Wall Street for their money and ideas. Williams, a progressive growth and redistributionist, in the mold of Jesse Jackson, the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and New York's Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, believes that change comes from the grassroots up, by building community based movements.

Williams lost his run for Newark mayor in 1982, but he remained in the trenches as a street organizer, a lawyer, and public school advocate. His engaging political memoir, "Unfinished Agenda, Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power," weaves three separate narratives into a fascinating story, and a persuasive roadmap for addressing chronic poverty, bad schools, and crime.

His personal diary begins in the Jim Crow south of Richmond, Virginia, where he grew up in a supportive, well educated, extended family that pushed academics. In his senior year at Amherst College (1965) he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the shock-troupes for civil rights demonstrations, sit-ins and voter registration drives.

Williams was accepted to Yale Law School, but before going to New Haven, he went to Newark joining Tom Hayden and other young radicals in a Students for a Democratic Society urban organizing project to mobilize poor African American residents around bread-and-butter issues like getting stop lights at dangerous street, housing, police abuse, and better schools. After law school Williams formed a new group, the Newark Area Planning Association (NAPA), which organized against the gentrifying urban renewal plans that included a medical school expansion. These struggles prepared him and his young allies to move beyond neighborhood organizing to create a campaign to elect the first black mayor of Newark. It was a critical moment in his training for the next stage of the civil rights conflict -- black power.

His second narrative takes us into Newark's slums and offers a front row seat to the inner-city black power movements. As a participant observer, Williams provides the reader with a political history of Newark from the 1960s until today, a city Williams helped shape. After the 1967 "Rebellion" working with local ministers and the Black Panther Party he stopped a highway from running through Newark's central ward and negotiated a jobs agreement with the expanding Medical School to ensure that thousands of blacks found homes in low and moderate income housing and employment in well-paying construction and hospital jobs. In 1970 his reputation earned him the job of managing the campaign of the first black Mayor of Newark, Kenneth Gibson.

Gibson appointed Williams at 26, the head of Lyndon Johnson's federal urban aid program, called Model Cities. Once inside city hall, Williams reveals the conflicts that developed between those who were elected to office and the people whose organizations that elected them. He vividly describes the rivalries, alliance, and betrayals by friends. The same qualities that led Gibson to hire Williams -- intelligence, street smarts and pedigree and loyal following among residents -- caused Gibson to fire him as a political threat.

The third narrative is his political analysis of urban power from a black perspective. Williams believes that Newark suffers today partly because too many black politicians lost touch with the rank-and-file residents of its low-income neighborhoods and the grassroots community, faith-based and labor groups he and others built.

By mobilizing a small segment of the population, the elected officials realized they could win in low turnout elections, make promises to improve housing, jobs, and schools. Lacking the resources, as well as the political will, their promises never turned into reality.

Williams argues, correctly, that those kind of promises can be kept only if emerging young leaders -- black, white and Hispanic--develop a class analysis and agenda so the organizations they build will not divide the majority of Americans, but bring them together. Williams adds, "The power in the suites, must be combined with the power in the streets", if Newark is to rise again.

Williams underestimates the barriers to his vision. As America became a suburban nation, big-city mayors lost the kind of influence Washington or Trenton they had from the 1930s to the 1060s. Moreover, the vast majority of Newark's poor are hopeless and fatalistic, and thus difficult to organize into a coherent political force to challenge the political power brokers.

Building the kind of clout Williams envisions may require progressives to synthesize the conflicts between him and Booker. They both refuse to see the African-American poor as helpless victims, needing charity, unable to change themselves or society for the better. And both rely on strategies they claim would empower and educate people, the essential ingredients of hope that can help the disadvantaged lift themselves up and overcome the barriers of poverty and despair. While Booker seeks to accomplish this by empowering underprivileged children using charitable donations from wealthy entrepreneurs as well as their ideas like vouchers and charter schools, Williams believes Booker's vision is short sighted. While he's willing to work in the Democratic Party, Williams believes the only way to change state and federal priorities that will improve the lot of most of the poor and middle-class is by a progressive movement that builds on the collective power of grassroots independent people's organizations.

In fact, Newark's grassroots organizers have done a good job while facing intractable odds -- manufacturing fled, leaving an untrained, uneducated working class without any jobs. The federal government moved to the right, its leaders told the cities to drop dead and cut funds for housing and everything else.

Williams provides a template for the hundreds of young people drawn to his latest activist groups, the Abbott Leadership Institute and the Youth Media Symposium. He urges them to dig in, organize and push from the outside to hold politicians accountable.

Williams is a symbol of continued devotion and commitment to what he believes, and an example of what one leader can do to inspire change in the city. He's passing his knowledge on to the next generation, to keep the fires of resistance and imagination burning.

John Atlas, president of the Montclair based National Housing Institute and author of Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Group (Vanderbilt University Press, 2010), is working on an ACORN documentary.