May 9, 2024 - News

Civil rights activist Cecil Williams' legacy preserved in archives

Photo of Cecil Williams speaking from a podium at City Hall

Rev. Cecil Williams speaks at a memorial for Nelson Mandela at San Francisco City Hall in 2013. Photo: Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

As the Bay Area mourns the late civil rights activist Cecil Williams, the San Francisco Public Library is inviting people to learn more about his work and legacy through the GLIDE Historical Records.

The big picture: Williams, the longtime pastor of Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin, died in late April at age 94. He played a key role in spearheading community outreach programs to assist impoverished residents and was an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQ+ community.

  • He served in his position for 60 years before retiring last year. A celebration of life is planned for 1pm Sunday at Glide.

State of play: The GLIDE collection comprises over 40 cartons of historical documents chronicling the organization's efforts to serve vulnerable San Franciscans.

  • It includes speeches, sermons, correspondence and published writings by Williams and his wife, activist and Glide co-founder Janice Mirikitani, who died in 2021.
  • The archives are accessible to the public at the San Francisco History Center, which is located on the sixth floor of the main library.

Context: The grandson of an enslaved person, Williams was born in Texas and built a reputation for himself as a radical leader after moving to San Francisco.

  • He was arrested marching in Selma with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 and was one of the first clergymen to preside over same-sex weddings, decades before they were legalized in the U.S.
  • Williams also led reentry programs for people leaving prison, helped expand access to health care and housing for people in need and established the city's Council on Religion and Homosexuality.

What they're saying: In a statement after his death, Mayor London Breed called him the "conscience of our San Francisco community."

  • "Growing up, there were members of the African American community that inspired us to dream, and to serve, and Cecil Williams was at the top of that list," she said. "We would not be who we are as a city and a people without the legendary Cecil Williams."
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