Sunday, April 17, 2005

Seth Williams

There is an interesting primary race in Philadelphia this May. District Attorney Lynne Abraham is facing Seth Williams, who was an assistant DA in her office for ten years, earning a fraction of what he could in private practice. There hasn’t been much press on this race. Or maybe there has and it hasn’t filtered out my way. I don’t live in Philadelphia. But there has been enough buzz generally and enough messages about it in my email for me to look into Mr. Williams and what he is about. I searched the backfiles of the Philadelphia Inquirer; specific citations are listed at the end of this entry

Instead of focusing on the race I focused on Mr. Williams himself, and what sort of man he appears to be. What I found blew my socks off. My first glimpse of him is as a college student. For many of us college is a time to explore and, sometimes, misbehave, in the guise of finding ourselves. In the last election we were treated to a candidate for the legislature who had to explain away some of his college shenanigans. Mr. Williams, though, chose to expend his energy in more positive ways. He attended Penn State at a time when only 3.6 percent of the student body was African American. He was elected president of the Black Caucus.

In 1987, instead of going wild at the shore on spring break, Mr. Williams and twenty-four other people, mostly other Penn State students, marched 102 miles, over six days, from State College to Harrisburg, to protest the university’s investment with businesses that dealt with South Africa, and its system of apartheid. When I was in college, a few years before Mr. Williams, and a few states away, I went on a two day, 40 mile march, for a different cause. Let me tell you that after just 40 miles, your feet HURT. What sort of shoes were you wearing in 1987? Nikes hadn’t really permeated the market. Most of the people on my march were in keds or hiking boots. We slept on a church floor and ate food donated and cooked by volunteers. I remember an unappealing vegetarian stew for supper and a big pot of plain oatmeal for breakfast. We packed our lunch the first day and just waited until we reached our destination to eat the second day. Think of the logistics of a six day march. You have to have places to sleep, someone to drive the sleeping bags there, someone to coordinate food and prepare it. Microwaves were not yet commonplace. There were no cell phones. A support vehicle, if you were lucky enough to have one, would just have to drive ahead and wait for you at an agreed upon place. People who passed you on the road might express some dissatisfaction with what you were doing and there was no way to call for help. I remember a few tense moments on my march. We were fortunate enough to have a good group leader who acted as our spokesman with hostile locals. There were places along the way where the shoulder was minimal and we worried about the possibility of being run off the road, or worse. One woman had to drop out when the blisters on her feet began to bleed. We left her and another person behind and let the support van know where they were when we saw it next. They backtracked to pick her up and return the friend to the group.

I marched for two days and 40 miles. At the time it was the most physically grueling thing I had done. Mr. Williams and his team marched for six days and over 100 miles. He has my respect for that alone.

The next year he was elected president of the university’s student government. He lobbied to have the university’s budget opened to the public and spoke before the state legislature on the impact of rising tuition costs. He was arrested as part of a sit-in to protest over racial issues on campus. There were a series of racially motivated incidents during the year, and Williams was the target of a flier distributed on campus. Yet all the quotes from him in the paper are eloquent and evenhanded. If he responded to fiery remarks in kind it wasn’t recorded in what I read. When he was home in Philly he delivered pizzas, the sort of job many working or middle class college kids have.

After graduation he went to law school. Instead of going into private practice he went to work in the DA’s office. He was copresident of the civic association in his neighborhood and is a captain in the Army Reserves. If Mr. Williams spends the rest of his career in pursuit of personal wealth, he will still have done more than his share for the public good. The man is not yet 40; there are lot of things he could still do for his state and for his city. He is the underdog in the DA campaign and it is unlikely that he will win. But, let’s do something unusual for a change, and not eat our own young. This is a man we need much more than he needs us. Let’s treat him with the respect he has earned. Let’s not chew him up and spit him out.

Seth Williams is a good man in a city that isn’t overly burdened with good men. If you live in the city and don’t want to contribute to his campaign or volunteer for him or vote for him, at least say a prayer that we do not lose him, because men like him don’t come along every day.

Sources: Philadelphia Inquirer, March 6, 1987, p. B6, “Apartheid protest targets Penn State”; May 11, 1988, p. B1 “Students ask Penn State: open budget”; May 14, 1988, p. B3, “Penn State plans talks with Blacks”; April 14, 1989, b. B17, “Students hit state college tuition hikes”: February 28, 1989, p. B6, “PA enters Penn State racial inquiry’; October 13, 2001, p. B1, “In Overbrook Park, a quiet change”; January 14, 2005, p. B1 “Ex-prosecutor seeks old boss’s job.”


ACM said...

nice research.
if you want some of the more recent news (and you are right that there isn't much), I've been catching most of it.

Anonymous said...

I agree that this is a very good
man. He stands for very sound and
important issues. We need someone
like this in office. I know that I will vote for him time and time again. Don't count him out he just may win after all

AboveAvgJane said...

I hope you are right and that he does win. It would be great if he did and we'd have to have a big party! Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

I was one of the other 102 marching with Seth and worked on his campaign for Penn State's student government President some 20plus years ago. He was a student of integrity and I'm glad to see his accomplishments.

Colleen T. Robinson

AboveAvgJane said...


Thank you so much for stopping by to comment. I hope someone is collecting people's stories from that march -- it would be a valuable addition to Penn State's archives.