The world knows Martin Luther King Jr. as an icon of civil rights, a spiritual leader, an orator of unparalleled skill and a leader committed to service and nonviolent protest.
Naccaman ‘Nac’ Williams reveres him for all those things. But his connection to Dr. King runs deeper.
Both King and Williams, director of special projects at the Walton Family Foundation, were members of Alpha Phi Alpha. It is the nation’s oldest historically African American fraternity. King joined the fraternity in 1952, when he studied at Boston University. Alpha Phi Alpha members were King’s allies during the civil rights era and later played a critical role in building the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Inspired by King, Williams joined the fraternity while on faculty and studying for his doctorate at the University of Arkansas.
As the country celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we asked Williams to reflect on the civil rights leader's influence on his own life and career in philanthropy.
Your fraternity is Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the country’s oldest intercollegiate historically African American fraternity. Martin Luther King Jr. had a special relationship with Alpha Phi Alpha. How did his history with the fraternity impact you, and what did you learn from it?
King was one of many who influenced me to become a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. There were others, such as Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Adam Clayton Powell and Joseph Lowery. But King had by far the most significant impact. He fought injustice. He made a difference. Alpha Phi Alpha was part of King’s life, as it is mine. I am a life member. I enjoy the brotherhood and the service to mankind.
Our fraternity's motto of "First of All, Servants of All, We Shall Transcend All" embodies our history as the first intercollegiate fraternity founded by African American men; our mission to provide service to our community; and our charge to our membership.
How is King’s legacy present in your life and work?
His legacy shows up in my life through my work in my church, the work in the community, mentoring others and serving the underserved. Also, it is about doing whatever I do with integrity; that is, only doing the right thing the right way.
And how about here at the foundation?
I see what King stood for in our work at the Walton Family Foundation. The foundation laid by our founders continues today with our board — our mission is to create access to opportunity for everyone. Not for a select few, but for everyone. It is about bringing everyone to the table — even those we may disagree with. Whether the work concerns education, the environment or the foundation’s home region, we strive to look, listen, learn – and lead where appropriate. I’m also proud to call my fellow alpha brother, Abe Hudson, a colleague here at the foundation.
Is there a moment or action in Martin Luther King Jr.’s life that inspires you?
There are so many moments: The “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Delivering the “I Have a Dream” speech. The civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery and his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” Of those moments, the Letter from Birmingham Jail stands out to me. It was King’s response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by eight white religious leaders of the South. What stands out to me is that the letter is not only written to the white religious leaders, but to all of America. In that letter he addresses their concerns while simultaneously articulating the issues of the civil rights movement.
Do you have a favorite quote from Martin Luther King Jr.?
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We cannot fight darkness with darkness and hate with hate.
You’re a father, grandfather and mentor to many. A lot of people look to you for advice. So give us some. What are ways to keep the spirit of King’s work alive all year round, not just one day in January?
Know that there is good in this world. If you don’t see it, then become it. Stand up for what is right in everything you do, big or small.