Just Ask Essie Mae…and Alonzo

By Michael-Louis Ingram
Updated: June 6, 2008

NOTE: In December of 2003, two seemingly unconnected events took place; the revelation of a redneck American senator’s fathering a multi-ethnic daughter and denying her for almost a century; as well as an organ transplant for a professional athlete…

PHILADELPHIA — In a world of tattletale, tabloid get-in-all-your business intrusion, it was the one item that not only turned back a clock but pulled the bed sheets off of an illusion of modern times.

Essie Mae Washington Williams, then a 78-year old educator, revealed to the world she was the love child of a deceased centenarian and reactionary white politician.

Strom Thurmond, a former senator from South Carolina who made his living practicing and preaching segregation, likely didn’t bother to turn over in his grave upon hearing the news. In the words of those coming to defend his act, it was “the worst-kept secret in South Carolina.”

While Ms. Williams may have desired closure in her revelation, all she truly did was open Pandora’s Box, and among those escaping ills were guilt, greed, inhumanity, ignorance and self-loathing.

To some, Williams represented a noble woman seeking a little peace, as media swinging from both sides of the plate piled-on the deceased racist and opportunist Thurmond for being, at worst, a hypocrite.

However, many others see Williams as an unfashionably late arrival to the human condition, specifically the cause of Black people in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s — with some justification.

Alexis Bruton is an educator and strategic consultant based in Philadelphia. Her family was very important in the civil rights movement north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and her Southern-born roots sympathize with Essie Mae Williams’ life choices.

“There are so many layers to this that it would be extremely difficult for me to sit in judgment on this,” explains Bruton. “One thing I do understand is the mentality of being born and raised in an area where restrictions were many and there was absolutely no deviation from the code of conduct created out of fear, especially in the time she was born.

“When you mention sex and Black women, you are stirring a very repressed pot, because ‘good Black girls’ kept their legs crossed, and you better believe Ms. Williams did much of what she did out of concern for her family’s survival.”

I was fortunate to have an immediate source on the peer perspective aspect of this then as I do now in one Arlene Yolanda Pinkard. Born in Toronto, the 87-years young Pinkard has been “Ma Pinky” to me for the past 33 years, with over half her life spent in New York City.

As usual, Ma Pinky didn’t mince words at the dinner table when the subject of Essie Mae Williams came up. “Here’s what I don’t understand,” said Pinkard. “Why did she wait so damn long to reveal these facts? She could have done a lot of good had she come out and spoke up, especially with how the world was finally seeing the injustice being perpetrated on Black folks in the South.

“As a mother and grandmother, you are surely concerned with protecting your children; but in taking the hush money like she did, I feel she profited from her silence, and only spoke up after the checks stopped coming. I’m sorry — I would tell her she’s a damn fool for waiting as long as she did.”

Ms. Bruton respectfully disagrees. “I never did like the ‘what if ‘ or ‘might have’ to stuff like this — to deliberate on whether something might have been different had someone done something.

Would it have had a difference? I don’t know.

What if perhaps in speaking up, Essie Mae Williams has to bury a son — or maybe a daughter gets the same treatment her grandmother got or worse by some redneck?

“You know, Whites would have you believe the drive-by was a Black creation. Anyone who ever heard of or saw D. W. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ or lived in the South could certainly dispel that notion; the American South was representative of apartheid in every sense of the word.

“And as far as the civil rights blueprint was concerned, many of the situations and strategies were planned. If Rosa Parks had decided to get up that fateful day and go to the back of the bus instead of maintaining her seat in the White section, someone else would have done it soon after.”

Sadly, however, it appears history will not spare Essie Mae Williams, who was 23 years old when her back-door daddy ran for President of the United States, running against Harry Truman because, among other reasons, Truman wanted to integrate the armed forces.

Who was 29 years old when the Brown vs. Board of Education decision integrated schools in Little Rock, Arkansas; who turned 30 when 11 year old Emmett Till was lynched — murdered for the crime of ‘whistling at a White girl.’

Who celebrated her 37th birthday the year when James Meredith was a bloody, beaten mess, his only crime being the first Black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi; and who turned 39 when four Black girls were blown to bits in a Baptist church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

If, as has been implied, this tryst and subsequent birth was the “worst kept secret in South Carolina,” then one can further understand the immense disgust in the pain-soaked words of James Baldwin, who screamed to anyone who could hear, “Four little girls died — and no one cares!”

Essie Mae Williams’ 40th birthday was also the year Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director and closet cross dressing sonuvabitch J. Edgar Hoover laid the groundwork for his COINTELPRO project, which imploded the Black Panthers, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), The Black Muslims (Nation of Islam) and indirectly led to the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

Three civil rights workers were also murdered in Mississippi during a voter registration drive that same year.

So is it fair to hang all this on Essie Mae Williams? Of course not; but it illustrates the plantation mentality born out of a group of blatherskites who were called the “Founding Fathers” is just as alive today as it was then.

The concept of “mixed-race” is, in my opinion, insulting, as there many ethnic groups but only one race.

Semantics aside, this became evident following the plea by ex-basketball star Alonzo Mourning, whose need for a kidney was fulfilled by a relative, yet had thousands willing to act as donors.

That Mourning was able to get the transplant, continue to play and thrive as a human being is still underscored by the reality of the lack of organ donors. It’s fair to say if Alonzo Mourning was a postal worker or truck driver instead of a sports figure, he might be on dialysis — or worse — by now.

Mourning’s request for more people to donate underscored the lack of so-called ‘minority donors.’ If Black people are considered by some to be less than human, why in God’s name would anyone want any of your body parts?

How could your blood help save someone’s life? But then again, in a world where some desire to call you inferior, it doesn’t serve a segregationist or white power advocate to scream to whoever matters, “We’re recessive and proud!”

Ultimately, if you want to know whether or not she can sleep peacefully, your best bet is to ask Essie Mae Williams. If you want to know whether history will let her one day rest in peace, I can say only what I have believed from early adulthood.

There are times sides are chosen and human beings are thrown into the mix, with their actions or inactions affecting the outcome…

So with that in mind, always remember; evil prospers when good men — and women — do nothing.