Letter to Dwight Williams from Michael Simmons
February 2018

[Dwight Williams was a student activist at Temple Univeristy in Philadelphia, a SNCC staff member in Arkansas, and part of SNCC's Atlanta Project. He later took advantage of a film industry Affirmative Action Program for African Americans and became a Hollywood director and producer who worked on dozens of films and shows such as Hustle & Flow, A Man Called Hawk, Women of Brewster Place, A Soldiers Story, Kojak, A Gathering of Old Men, New Jack City, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. On learning in 2018 that Dwight had been awarded a Distinguished Career Achievement award from the Director's Guild of America, SNCC veteran Michael Simmons wrote the following letter to Dwight and his family.]

Dear Dwight,

Sorry for my typical late response but I started this communication before the holidays and got overwhelmed by them. First I want to say congrats but I also want to say it is about time. Recognizing you for your craft should have been done a long time ago, but more than that, you should be getting recognition for your ground-breaking role in the industry you chose. I am honored to be able to say that we have been friends over 50 years and from the first time I met you during our teenage years I knew you were special. Because of your humility about your accomplishments and your life journey I want to say a few things that I doubt many on this list are aware of.

To Dwight's friends and family:

I first met Dwight at political meeting of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) in 1962 and I had no idea that we would become life long friends. He had recently returned from a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) meeting about the desegregation movement in Albany, Georgia. The following year we entered Temple University where we spent as much time addressing our shared passion for justice as we did addressing academics.

During the summer of 1964 Dwight and I did modest support work for the SNCC Freedom Summer through Philly contacts and we went to a support rally in Atlantic City during the Democratic National Convention. In response to the brutal attack in 1965 by Alabama state troopers on civil rights workers in Selma, known as "Bloody Sunday," we organized a march of 3000-plus students and non-students, marching from the campus of TU to Philadelphia City Hall. Building on the energy from the march, we organized a student group called "CONSCIENCE", with a mission of developing tutorial programs for the North Philadelphia community surrounding Temple.

During our 1965 spring break, we drove to Atlanta with the purpose of finding out how to join SNCC. Because we were driving in a car that constantly overheated, the ride took 33 hours with us having to stop almost every hour to fill the damn radiator. This was before interstate 85 was completed so our journey took us through many small towns on the way and we were never sure if we would find an open gas station. Because Dwight had a beard (which was associated with civil rights movement activists) we were always looked at askance by the locals. Moreover, even if we could have found a hotel we didn't have enough money to spend on a room.

The only information that we had was the address of the SNCC office and we knew no one in Atlanta. As fate would have it, we wound up staying with John Lewis, then chairman of SNCC, during our stay. Our plan was to go to Mississippi at the end of the semester. However we met SNCC field workers Worth Long (who later became a noted musicologist) and Jimmy Travis. Jimmy had been a victim of a failed assassination attempt on the life of Bob Moses, another SNCC field worker, in 1964 — while Bob was uninjured, Jimmy had been shot in the head. For us this became a cautionary tale as we thought about our return trip to Philly.

In fact during our stay in Atlanta our 33 hour return trip was never far from our minds. Worth and Jimmy told us that the aftermath of Freedom Summer had created many problems in SNCC projects in Mississippi and suggested that we avoid Mississippi and apply to work instead on the Arkansas Project. Since it didn't matter to us, we began making plans to go to Arkansas in June. This time we had a 36 hour bus ride.

In Arkansas we were assigned to different projects, with Dwight working in Pine Bluff and me working in Helena. We saw each other sporadically during the summer at staff meetings and other project activities. We both worked on voter registration and strengthening the respective community movement organizations. At the end of the summer we both decided to not return to school and made an open-ended commitment to the Movement. In the fall of 1965 I was assigned to organize students in Virginia, North and South Carolina while Dwight remained in Arkansas.

In January 1966, SNCC started a project in Atlanta to work on the special election that resulted from the refusal of the Georgia Legislature to allow Julian Bond — who had been elected in 1965 — to take his seat. I convinced Dwight to leave Arkansas and join in this effort.

One of the strategies we developed by the Atlanta Project was to hand out leaflets in the downtown Five Points neighborhood from 6-8 am every morning for a month leading up to the election — many Black workers passed through this area in the morning to catch buses to their jobs in White neighborhoods. This work was one of first times that I recall that Dwight's creativity came to the fore. He took the development of leaflets to a new level. Rather than hand out one-page flyers, Dwight developed four-page leaflets that told stories about the relation between racism and war. Keep in mind that we did this for a month, and Dwight was always developing new material. Dwight's leaflets were noted not just in the US media but also in the German and French media. Similarly, Dwight developed the Atlanta Project's newspaper the Nitty Gritty, acknowledged to be one of the best newspapers to come out of the Movement.

In August 1966, we began demonstrating at the Atlanta Induction Center to protest the Vietnam War. This led to 12 of us being arrested and held in separate cells before trial. On his own, separated from the rest of us and not knowing what was going on with the others, Dwight was beaten by the police — the only one of us to be beaten, it turned out — but this did not deter him.

We spent 60 days of a 90-day sentence at the Atlanta Prison Stockade. During our stay in jail, the SNCC folks were separated from the other prisoners and we would always be challenging the arbitrary behavior of the guards, resulting in us being put in "the hole" on a regular basis. Life in the hole consisted of two people in a cinder block cell with a wooden door and the light kept on 24 hours a day. They gave us bread and water every day with a "meal" of bread, water, and beans on the third day. Rather than acquiesce to this treatment, we would refuse all food.

Once during the "meal" time, Dwight kicked his water onto the foot of a guard, and the guard shouted at him, angrily promising to come back and beat him. Although we were in different cells I heard the guard's shouting and threats, and went on a tirade that would humble Mike Tyson, yelling at the guard that if he attacked Dwight he would have to beat my ass, too. While I knew we could not win a fight I was prepared to go down with Dwight. As it turned out, the guards thought I was crazy (which Dwight will agree, I may have been!) and let it pass. But Dwight never backed up — and this is one of our many shared memories of brotherhood in struggle.

After our two-year stint in SNCC, Dwight returned to Philadelphia and TU in 1967 while I had breif forays to Chicago and NYC. At Dwight's urging I decided to return to school, and we were back to our old disruptive organizing, though with more sophistication than two years earlier, thanks to our SNCC experiences.

Using these experiences, we initiated a project to establish an Affirmative Action Program and a Black Studies Department at Temple University. The first step in this process was the establishment of the Steering Committee for Black Students (SCBS), an organization that encompassed all of the disparate Black student groups at Temple into a broad-based coalition. Dwight's vision and creative talents again took center stage as he developed the SCBS's student run newspaper, Black Torch. The Black Torch was not just a student newspaper but was circulated throughout the community with campus and community news.

aving mastered the bureaucracy of the work-study programs, in 1969 Dwight and I were able to create summer jobs for Black Temple students to work throughout Philly's Black communities teaching African/African American History. From 1968 to the fall of 1969, SCBS waged a protracted anti-racist struggle with Temple University, including racist treatment of students by administrators and faculty. Our tactics included demonstrations and picketing. By the fall of 1969we had succeeded in getting Temple to form a Black studies program, an academic department now known as the Pan African Institute. We also succeeded in establishing the Special Recruitment and Admission Program (SRAP).

Most affirmative action programs only focused on the issue of quotas but we realized that the issue was more complex and that we had to do more than create a program for "good students". SRAP was unique in that it allowed for students on the lower end of their class rankings to be accepted into the university with remedial support. As a member of the negotiating team Dwight developed strategy that countered and challenged the compromised and compromising proposals of the university.

In late 1969, I began serving what turned out to be two and half years in prison for draft refusal. I will always be in Dwight's debt for his support for my wife and daughter during all that time. And I will never forget that when I was released from jail (broke and unemployed) and all the styles had changed, Dwight insisted that I take his credit cards and buy all new clothes to fit the transformed times — and would not hear of me repaying him.

And now to you, Dwight:

This is just a brief thumbnail sketch about you and I could say so much more about your artistry and even more about your humanity and generosity of spirit. Over the years I have met many African Americans who have worked on film and television projects with you and the one thing that is constant is them telling me how you are always willing to fight to get jobs for African Americans in all aspects of the industry. In fact, over 40 years ago you found a job for one of my former Lewisburg prison cell mates as a night watchman on the set of Gordon's War. In an industry that does not reward African Americans who demand that African American experience be valued and respected, you have continued to push the envelope.

Given my marginal economic status — some things never change — I doubt if I will be able to be there in person in February. Even if I could come up with the plane ticket I probably would have to wear blue jeans since I doubt if I could pay for a flight AND rent a tux. Nevertheless I will be with you in spirit and hopefully we can celebrate with each other in 2018.

Finally, as I have been saying for years, Temple University should be giving you an honorary doctorate and have a retrospective of your work. One day.

Sending you much love and and much respect.


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