Claude Clossey Williams (1895–1979)
Claude Clossey Williams was a Presbyterian minister and human rights activist who was long involved in the civil rights movement. In addition, he was an active labor organizer and served as national vice president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Claude Clossey Williams was born on June 16, 1895, in Weakley County, Tennessee, to Jess Williams and Minnie Bell Galey Williams. His parents were tenant farmers and sharecroppers who were members of the fundamentalist Cumberland Presbyterian Church. In 1910, he left his family and moved in with cousins, working on their farm. During the winters, he worked as a railroad laborer, carpentry assistant, and painter. He also heaved coal for Mississippi River steamboats.
In 1916, with the United States on the brink of entering World War I, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was trained as an officer, but the war ended just a few days before Williams graduated as a lieutenant. In 1919, he reenlisted, spending the next two years at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
With postwar demobilization reducing the size of the army, Williams abandoned his military career and prepared to enter business. Stopping back home in Tennessee en route to a planned job in South America, he had a change of heart, deciding to pursue the ministry. In 1922, he began attending seminary at Bethel College in Tennessee, graduating in 1924. While at Bethel, Williams met his future wife, Joyce King, a missionary student from the Ozark Mountains region of southern Missouri. They married on May 16, 1922, and had three daughters.
In addition to his religious studies, Williams also came under the influence of socialist Dr. Alva Taylor, who taught at the Vanderbilt School of Religion. Williams studied Marxism, from which he developed what became a life-long relationship with the Communist Party. From all of this, Williams developed an interpretation of the Bible that saw Christianity as a struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. His politics became a source of controversy, and his first pastorate, which he began in 1924 in Auburntown, Tennessee, subsequently expelled him.
In 1930, he was given an assignment in Arkansas at a small church in Paris (Logan County). Surveying the community he was serving—one made up of poor miners, sharecroppers, and a small number of African American families—Williams decided to try to organize the miners, an effort that led to major growth in the congregation. It also led to concerns from church and community leaders who opposed the influx of poor workers from the surrounding area, as well as the racially mixed services that Williams intended to offer. Consequently, he was removed from the Paris pastorate. In 1935, he was given an assignment at a church in Fort Smith (Sebastian County), but that assignment also ran into trouble when an effort by Williams and others to organize a hunger march by unemployed workers resulted in their arrests, a fine of $100, and a ninety-day jail sentence for Williams and the workers. Williams was tried for heresy by the church.
Upon his release from jail, Williams relocated to Little Rock (Pulaski County), where he undertook an effort to train sharecroppers, as well as other workers, in the art of grassroots organizing. Building upon that effort, he established the New Era School for Social Action and Prophetic Religion in 1936. He also became involved with the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, raising money and protecting schools. During this time, he also served as vice president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Throughout this period, Williams was increasingly becoming identified as a social activist. On a trip to Memphis, Tennessee, to make arrangements for the funeral of a sharecropper who had been beaten to death, Williams was attacked by five sheriff’s deputies and then forced to sign a statement saying that he had not been hurt. He was also prevented from proceeding to Memphis. The following year, Williams was appointed the director of Commonwealth College in Mena (Polk County), but he resigned two years later amidst allegations of Communist Party sympathies.
In 1940, Williams made changes to his New Era School, changing its name to the People’s Institute of Applied Religion (PIAR) and its focus to the organization of rural famers and industrial workers. Central to the school’s operations was Williams’s effort to reach people through his preaching skills, at which point, basing his efforts in biblical passages and lessons, he could work with them to achieve social justice. In 1942, Williams was asked by the Detroit Presbytery to serve as the “industrial chaplain,” helping minister to the needs of the many southerners who had migrated north to get jobs in the area’s auto plants. He brought the PIAR organization with him, and for three years he worked with the unions, auto workers, and African Americans—until another round of accusations concerning his alleged Communist affiliations, this time by the right-wing leader Gerald L. K. Smith, led the Presbytery to fire him.
Leaving Detroit, Michigan, in 1946, Williams returned to the South, settling in Birmingham, Alabama. There, he continued his effort with PIAR, while also organizing a Bible training program. In 1953, the House Un-American Activities Committee accused him of being a Communist, and while a trial by the Detroit presbytery did not address the issue, Williams was found guilty of heresy and defrocked as a minister. He would not be reinstated until 1965. In the meantime, he became an active participant in the civil rights movement. Living with his wife in a trailer home outside of Birmingham, he worked in voter registration efforts, organized protests against police brutality, and helped in an effort to allow African Americans to keep their land.
Williams’s wife died in 1976. He remained active in the fight for social justice until his death on June 29, 1979, in Birmingham. He willed his body for scientific research.
For additional information:
“Claude Clossey Williams.” Cumberland Presbyterian Licentiate. http://www.cumberland.org/hfcpc/minister/WilliamsClaudeC.htm (accessed April 9, 2018).
Claude Williams Papers. Walter P. Reuther Library. Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan. Finding aid online at http://as.reuther.wayne.edu/repositories/2/resources/208 (accessed April 9, 2018).
Gellman, Erik S., and Jarod Roll. The Gospel of the Working Class: Labor’s Southern Prophets in New Deal America. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2011.
William H. Pruden III
Last Updated: 02/17/2020