BRADENTON -- Larry Williams was a sixth-grade dropout working in the cotton fields of Cruger, Miss., during the 1960s.
He remembers Civil Rights freedom marchers moving down U.S. Highway 49 East past the little town of Cruger, located north of the state capital, Jackson.
He watched at a distance, scarcely imagining the quantum leap in equal rights that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the freedom marchers would help win for millions of Americans.
But Williams, inspired by the new freedoms, would one day return to school to get his general equivalency diploma for high school, and go on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
For the past 23 years, he has lead a congregation in Bradenton on a street that bears the slain Civil Rights leader’s name.
Williams, the 62-year-old minister at Church of Christ, 201 Martin Luther King Ave., will no doubt have a few things to say in his sermon Sunday about MLK’s example, and what his life meant for himself and countless others.
“Dr. King has been a motivating force for me, a mentor to do the best I could,” Williams said this week.
Williams is dismayed by the disintegration of the family, and how dominant gun violence, drug abuse and gang activity has become.
“The gangs are replacing the family. They are providing things that the family once provided: money, security, a good time,” Williams said.
“We have had several deaths in our congregation and so often we work with the families who have lost children,” he said.
Williams is an exponent of hard work, study, saving money, and of taking the steady path to success, rather than looking for instant gratification.
“I came up in Mississippi working in the cotton fields. There were six of us, four bothers and two sisters, and we all worked in the fields with our mother,” he said.
It was a hard life, but the family was close-knit and supportive of one another.
He believes that having a holiday like Martin Luther King Jr. will help new generations remember the suffering and sacrifice of those who went before. And to take the lessons of freedom and opportunity based on merit and character to heart.
“Let freedom ring. Larry really supports that,” said Ricky Thomas, one of the leaders of Church of Christ.
“Because of the struggle, it made Larry understand that education helps to level the playing the field. He exemplified that by going back to school. We are very proud of our minister,” Harris said.
Too many today believe that life is all about them, and have forgotten “there is a force in the world greater than we are,” Williams said.
“You have to have respect life, for family and for property,” Williams said.
Decades ago, Williams would come to Florida for work picking oranges.
While in Florida, he bought a suit, and began to attend church, eventually becoming a member.
“Then I decided I wanted to preach,” he said, a decision that led him back to the classroom.
He has since earned degrees from Abilene Christian University, and Webster University, and graduated from Florida School of Preaching in Lakeland.
He and his wife Linda have four children.
Williams is still questing to be all that he can, and rejects coveting the fame or money of others.
“It gets in the way of using what we have,” he said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee Editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.