Last Sunday was an emotional day for Willie Williams Jr., father of slain high school athlete Willie Williams III and founder of the foundation that bears his son’s name.
It was the first time he visited the site of his son’s shooting death on April 1, 2006 in front of the AMC movie theater at the Ford City shopping center.
“My fiancee and I felt it was time to go to the site and pay tribute,” said Williams. “We left two candles under the tree adjacent to the theater, tied a [Willie Williams III] foundation T-shirt around the tree and prayed. It was emotional, but I felt a sense of peace afterward.”
Willie Williams Jr. looked at the trip as a culmination of tributes to his son, using the details of the unconscionable tragedy surrounding his death as the motivation to make a difference in a community where so many other young men and women die in eerily similar and maddeningly senseless ways.
Shortly following his son’s passing, Williams Jr. decided to first honor his son by creating the Willie Williams III Youth Foundation. The goal of the foundation is to give support and guidance to inner-city children, many of whom have few recreational outlets in their communities, leaving them susceptible to the pressure of gangs.
“The foundation in part allows children to learn about other outlets they can become involved with,” said Williams. “We hook them up with job training programs, softball and basketball leagues, dancing programs and mentoring. These are the things they need to become involved with to keep their minds occupied outside of school.”
Willie Williams III was a 17-year-old junior at Robeson High School when he was killed. He was already attracting attention from college scouts (among them Indiana University) for his impressive basketball skills and athleticism. He also performed for the Jessie White Tumblers for five years.
“I knew he had a gift for sports at a young age,” said Williams. “I used to take him down to Lincoln Park when he was still only eight, and we used to play one-on-one in the evenings. At first, I won the games regularly, but then he finally figured me out and started winning every time we played.”
Although Williams III was known for his athletic exploits, Williams Jr. stressed the importance of maintaining his grades as well promising to remove his younger namesake from sports if his grades began to go south.
“He did receive one D, and I told him he would not be able to play until it improved,” said Williams. “He promised he would”-a promise young Willie Williams upheld, which Williams Jr. realized when he viewed his son’s report card, posthumously, a month after the shooting.
According to sources, the shooting occurred when Williams III and a friend went to a movie at Ford City’s AMC Theaters. Following the film, as the boys were leaving, they were surrounded by a half dozen other boys of approximately the same age who demanded to know their gang affiliation. When the group did not like their answer, shots rang out. Williams was hit once in the head and succumbed to his injuries 14 hours later as his father looked on from his bedside. His initial reaction was utter shock and disbelief, he said. “It is just an indescribable feeling.”
To date, no one has been indicted in the shooting, realization that fills Willie Williams Jr. with dismay but not irate bitterness.
“I pray that they do find the culprit, but I feel that hating the men will only bring me down spiritually,” said Williams. “I have in my heart forgiven them but will never forget.” His son was an organ donor. His heart went to save a 3-year-old boy.
Through the Willie Williams III Foundation, Williams Jr. has spoken at elementary schools about violence and recreational activities as a way to curb them. He has receives funding from donations by politicians like Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, Ald. Walter Burnett, Ald. Ed Smith, and state senators Irene Martinez and Mattie Hunter. The Chicago Sky and Chicago Bulls have donated uniforms and equipment, as has the Chicago White Sox. He is now applying for federal grants for funding as well.
He spoke at John Hay Academy, 1018 N. Laramie, on May 16, and Roberson Elementary School, 646 N. Lawndale, on May 8. At Hay Academy, he was joined by 37th Ward Alderman Emma Mitts and spoke to over 200 students, and at Roberson, he was joined by Secretary of State Jessie White and state Representative Walter Burnett and spoke to over 300 students.
“I just wanted to tell my story and let the children know that they have options outside of gangs in the community,” said Williams, who also spoke at Dvorak Elementary School and Best Practice High School this month. He has no scheduled dates to speak at other schools although he wants to hit the South Side schools soon. He wants to speak at CVS and Julian High Schools.
Willie Williams Jr. has always been greatly involved with activities involving children. He worked three years in security and as coach of the girl’s varsity team and the Hearing Impaired Basketball team at Whitney Young High School. The 42-year-old is the father of two other children (a 15-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter). He admits to having fears about their safety.
“You are always concerned as a parent that one day your child may leave, and you may not see them again,” said Williams. “I do have concerns with my own children about going out and hanging out with friends. I just simply pray over it though.”
Currently, Willie Williams III is planning a non-violence march through Seward Park, 375 N. Elm, on June 23 at 9:15 a.m. He says he expects to have state Senator Mattie Hunter and Alderman Ed Smith (28th Ward) among the scheduled participants.
For more information about the Willie Williams III Foundation, go to his website at williewmsyouthfdn.com.