Updated: Nov 7, 2021
In honor of Black History Month, The Chronicle recently had the privilege of interviewing Swainsboro’s own Lee Arthur Williams. Williams, now 67, carries the prestigious title of being the very first African American citizen elected to Swainsboro’s City Council. However, there was one other African American elected for council in Emanuel County, and that was Walter (Sapp). Artist Kelly would soon follow, as well as several others to be elected as representatives for Swainsboro. On May 8, 2021, Williams will turn 68-years-old with his name etched firmly in Swainsboro’s storied history. Williams began his campaign to become an elected official for Swainsboro City Council at the ripe age of just 27 and on November 21, 1980, he would be sworn into his historical position. He would then proceed to take office on January 1, 1981.
For three years after, he would enjoy the responsibilities of representing Swainsboro on its city council. Roger Shaw was the presiding mayor at the time of Williams’ swearing into city council, something Williams recalls quite clearly as Shaw was the one to administer the oath he would have to swear unto en route to his official position. Williams also recalls that his mother (Mannie Williams), his wife (Margaret Williams), and his daughter (Evelyn Williams) were present at the time of his ceremony. Williams states his “interest in the community” and loyalty to Swainsboro were the primary reasons for his decision to campaign for council.
This budding interest in the community of Swainsboro originated from his time working for Dolores and Woody’s in Swainsboro, where he spent 16 years. “I took it as a joke and I didn’t think I was going to win, but I’m glad I did now for the experience I got and the knowledge I got out of it,” he cheerfully claims about his initial thoughts. During the interview, he went on to state that at this point in his life, he doesn’t plan on running for anything else in Emanuel County.
The bond Lee created with the citizens of Swainsboro didn’t go unnoticed as he declares, ”I had real support in the public, but if I had any opposition coming into the election, it was an elderly gentleman, John Willie Gunn, but he had to step down and that made me go in unopposed.” Gunn, a fellow African American who had run for city council years before Williams did, actually tried to get Williams to step down; however, this would not deter his quest to become apart of history.
Even at the age of only 27 and relatively inexperienced in terms of politics, Williams carried with him the confidence of someone far more seasoned in the field and perhaps, in his own words, “a little cockiness” as he goes on to profess, “I’ll step down on November 21 when the people make their decision.” This decision, ironically enough, was decided on a straw vote in the church (a church he still serves to this day) between members of Ward 6, which was the ward Williams represented at the time and was also the smallest district in Swainsboro. After Williams’ three years in the council, he decided he “didn’t want no more,” marking the end of his historical run as the first African American City Council representative for Swainsboro. However, Williams would reluctantly run again after his three years of service. In his own words, “Due to not campaigning much, I wound up losing my bid to re-election by just nine votes, but I didn’t seek no recount. I just found another job.” The other job he found, he would spend the next 27 years of his life as a member of the Department of Corrections.
Williams admits to a variety of emotions he felt leading up to his council position, most notably confidence. Williams went on to say, “I feel like I was going to be a help to my community and I could have did some things like Dr. Martin Luther King did.” Dr. Martin Luther King’s influence is well-documented in the annals of history, so it’s no surprise he provided inspiration to other African American people who sought to also engrain themselves in the history of their respective counties, cities, towns.
Williams attributes his primary supporters during his journey to his grandfather, John W. Williams, and his two bosses during his time at Dolores and Woody’s. These two men were the late Woodruff Denton Key Sr., who was the founder/co-owner of the business, and the late Herbert Eugene “Gene” Simmons. Williams affectionately refers to them as “his father figures over the years.” One other person Williams references as a “big help” in his life was Representative Butch Parrish, who was working in a nearby drug store at the time. Williams also references the late Roberta Cross Davenport, who was Emanuel County’s first African American probate judge. Finally, he recalls the late Hattie Pearl Redding, “a faithful supporter” of his, and the late Deacon Ben Strobridge.
Although Williams had little experience in the field of politics, he felt his ability to be able to make decisions and his connection to the people were his primary qualifications to successfully campaign for his position. History would, of course, support Williams in this regard. In relation to the experience Williams gained during his three-year stint on the council, he details that he treasures most the chance he had to “meet a lot of important people within the state and out the of state,” (e.g., the late mayor Maynard Jackson, Hosea Williams, and Coretta Scott King). Williams took the opportunity during his encounter with Mrs. King to get her autograph as well.
Usually, city council meetings don’t leave much in terms of suspense or exciting moments; however, Williams recalls that during his very first meeting as a 27-year-old, he was “energetic and cocky,” but aside from his disposition, he was all business. Williams expands further on this in that when he got in there, they (his peers) realized he knew how to make decisions, and that’s when the game started and they would remember him easily.
Even though Williams’ education didn’t extend past his tenure at Swainsboro High School, this did not keep him from accomplishing great things and leading a memorable life. Williams has received multiple rewards, ranging from his 27 years of service with the Department of Corrections as well as a plaque to honor his Martin Luther King appreciation program in 2016.
In conclusion to the interview, Williams wanted to note that there has been a great deal of progression made in terms of the African American race standing in conventional and professional society in comparison to his early days as a 27-year-old elected official in the Swainsboro City Council. He warns still that there is still a culture even within his own race of “the big fish still try to eat the little fish.” Willaims finishes the interview with some words of wisdom to the younger generation as well as denotes the challenges African Americans still face in today’s society. He proclaims that the younger generation has “got to be positive, straight-forward and honest ‘cause right now with all that is going on in the world today, you don’t know who you can trust.” Williams also offered the following excerpt from the Bible, John 8:32: You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Williams expands on this, sayin,g “You have to free yourself in order to know the truth and that’s why I know I’m free, because of the things I have been through and the knowledge I acquired, I know I wouldn’t have made it without prayer and believing in my lord and savior Jesus Christ.”
He mentions how he was so happy with the interview and the time he spent talking to us and on behalf of The Chronicle to you, sir, I say the pleasure was all ours.