Prominent South LA activist pastor Reverend Eugene Williams dead at 52

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USC hosts a memorial service Saturday for a prominent Baptist minister and community activist in Los Angeles. The Reverend Eugene Williams died last month. He was 52.

Reverend Williams was an outspoken advocate for the poor, for ethnic minorities and for men coming out of prison, especially in South Los Angeles. But he operated among many communities, said the Reverend Chip Murray.

“He had access to the faith-based community, the political community, the corporate community," he added.

Murray, who once headed First AME Church and now teaches at USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, said Williams was “gifted in his analysis policy and politics.” Murray also said that Williams liked to take the lead on issues ... that he was no pushover.

“He was a leader – and if you didn’t believe it, all you had to do was ask him,” Murray continued.

Williams came from a family of activists. His mother was the legendary South L.A. activist Juanita Tate. He was born and raised in Philadelphia and worked as a union organizer before he came to Southern California to lead the Mount Olive 2nd Baptist Church, and then Prophetic Missionary Baptist Church in South L.A. Eugene Williams didn’t attend college or the seminary, but was an ordained Baptist minister. He was the most outspoken among a group of younger ministers who wanted the church to become more active fighting poverty, violence, and racism.

“We must now examine the question: has the salt lost it savory? Are black Baptists obsolete? Have we lost our commitment to justice, compassion and service?" Williams said in a video four years ago.

Williams invoked the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior as he called on fellow clergy to step up. He started Organizing Magazine, a national publication on faith-based organizing. He created the Regional Congregations and Neighborhood Organizations Training Center. And he worked with USC to establish a program called “Passing the Mantle” that’s trained some 200 pastors to become more active in their communities.

“Ultimately, we want to work with you to create a new prophetic voice and a new movement to protect and serve our communities where our congregations live, work and worship," Williams had explained.

Williams had critics who thought he was too domineering and controlling. State Assemblyman Isadore Hall calls Williams a “pioneer advocate” on a key issue of our time – how to provide more help to state prison inmates returning home.

“Reverend Williams often times was seen not just in Los Angeles but in Northern California in the capital, all up and down the state of California, San Diego," he said.

Dr. Malcolm Williams, no relation to Reverend Williams, is a researcher at Rand. He said the pastor's passing is consequential.

He continued, saying that Williams played an instrumental role in Rand’s work on prisoner re-entry, and he worried that attention to the issue will suffer with his passing.

“We owe it to this issue and his memory to turn over every rock, ask the right questions, demand action from one another. Don’t let this slip. Let’s work as if Reverend Williams is going to call in a few days to check on our progress," he said.

Williams died of lung cancer. He was 52 years old. The Williams memorial is at USC’s Taper Hall at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 5.