Elmer Smith: The honoring Hardy Williams, by those he honored

Hardy Williams
Hardy Williams
Posted: June 23, 2009

THE VIP LIST reads like a who's who of Pennsylvania politics. You can't beg or buy a ticket.

All they had to say was, "Let's honor Hardy Williams." His allies and opponents responded at once and as one.

You could be either, on any given day. Many of the politicians who will be at tonight's tribute at the Pennsylvania Convention Center may have enjoyed Williams' support one year and felt his lash the next, depending on how they felt about the people and issues that meant the most to him.

In the political movement that Williams helped to found more than 40 years ago, there were no permanent alliances or permanent enmities. There was a healthy disregard for party labels and party bosses.

Williams, who represented districts in West Philadelphia as a state Rep. and state Senator, was consistent only in his support of his people. Everything else was negotiable.

It was transactional politics. It worked well for the people he served, not so much for the Democratic Party. Williams and other founders of the Black Political Forum wore the party label loosely if at all, and only when it suited their purposes.

He started his career in elective office in the '60s by defeating a party-backed candidate for ward leader. But, in the years since, he has helped to elect Democrats, Republicans and independents alike.

He doesn't remember much of that now. His memory is being wiped clean by the ravages of a form of dementia. But, tonight is for those of us who can never forget what that movement meant.

As a young guy growing up half a block from the Black Political Forum offices, at 52nd and Race streets, in the '60s, I remember seeing the late John White Sr., W. Wilson Goode and Williams holding workshops and political forums for people in the neighborhood.

But what I remember most is how they energized people who were barely old enough to vote.

One of those was Lynette Brown-Sow, who got her start working in Williams' campaigns when she was in her teens. She organized tonight's tribute.

"I managed my first campaign office while I was still in high school," she said. "Hardy put young people to work. He didn't care about your age."

Many of the people who later held public office in the city's black wards got started by handing out leaflets and knocking on doors after school.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. and former state Rep. John White Jr. were all seasoned campaigners by the time they finished high school. Hardy's son, Anthony Hardy Williams, who serves in the state Senate seat his father retired from, wasn't even in high school yet.

The youth movement they ignited spread across the city. The late David P. Richardson parlayed his own grassroots activism into a long and productive career in the state legislature, in part with the help of Williams' outside-the-party lines organization.

"We did everything on a shoestring," Brown-Sow recalled. "Hardy's mother, 'Mom' Williams, made cheese sandwiches. We had gang members, gang workers, church people. We all worked together.

"People remember it. We're booked up. It's almost overwhelming. We've raised about $150,000 for the Hardy Williams Educational Fund.

"But that was almost secondary to me. My main goal is to honor Hardy and to document the history of the black political movement with our documentary."

The documentary, by veteran Philadelphia journalist Helen Blue and award-winning videographer Diane Thompson, will debut tonight.

"We wanted to have a resource where you could see what grew out of the movement and the vision. It was a kind of community empowerment that didn't have to go through the political machines.

"Hardy didn't do it alone. But he was a catalyst. It was important for me to do this for my daughter's generation who don't even know who he is."

It's important for my generation, too. We need to be reminded that we don't get our power from parties or politicians. They get their power from us.

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/smith

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