Global Links

In Memoriam

John A. Williams

John A. Williams, who taught at Rutgers University–Newark from 1979 to 1994 and whose career earned him the American Book Award Lifetime Achievement Award and induction into the National Literary Hall of Fame, passed away on July 3, 2015, in a veterans’ home in Paramus, N.J. He was 89.

The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

Williams retired in 1994 as the Paul Robeson Distinguished Professor of English at Rutgers–Newark.

Williams, who had lived in Teaneck, N.J., is survived by his wife, Lorrain; his sons, Dennis, Adam, and Gregory; a sister, Helen Musick; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Williams's career spanned 30 years and multiple genres, including fiction, travel books, biographies, and picture-histories for adult and young-adult readers. He emerged onto the American literary scene in 1960 with his first novel, The Angry Ones. He caught the attention of critics a year later with his second novel, Night Song, which painted a vivid portrait of the jazz world of Greenwich Village, in New York City.

But it was his fourth work of fiction, The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), that established Williams as a major force in American and African-American literature.

According to H. Bruce Franklin, John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers–Newark, Williams played a key role in transforming a little-known university department into an intellectual and creative powerhouse with national and international recognition. He was also instrumental in creating both the campus’ journalism program and the foundation of what would eventually become one of the finest MFA in Creative Writing programs in the United States.

Williams was born on December 5, 1925, in Jackson, Miss., and grew up in Syracuse, N.Y. He left high school to work and in 1943 joined the U.S. Navy, serving as a medical corpsman in the Pacific.

After the war, he completed high school and attended Syracuse University on the GI bill, where he earned degrees in journalism and English in 1950.

In 1958, Williams became the European correspondent for both Ebony and Jet magazines. In the mid-1960s, he reported for Newsweek from Africa and the Middle East and from Europe for Holiday magazine. In the early 1970s, he was an editor of the periodic anthology Amistad, which was devoted to critical writing on black history and culture.

He published works in a variety of genres, including a travel book, This Is My Country Too (1965); a biography of Richard Wright and a controversial book on the life and death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (both in 1970); and Africa: Her History, Lands and People Told With Pictures (1969). With his son Dennis, he wrote the biography If I Stop I’ll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor (1991). In 2003, Williams performed a spoken-word piece on Transform, an album by the rock band Powerman 5000. At the time, his son Adam was the band's guitarist.

His novels include Sissie (1963), which narrates the life of a Southern domestic worker as seen through the eyes of her two estranged children, and Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light (1969), a thriller about a civil rights activist who turns to murder after losing faith in nonviolence.

Williams also wrote the novel Captain Blackman (1972), whose influence on subsequent generations of writers is well-documented. Barbara Foley, Distinguished Professor of English at Rutgers–Newark, describes the work as a sweeping transhistorical novel presenting the experiences of a single African-American soldier from the 18th century to the era of the Vietnam War.

For more information, please visit:

Return to In Memoriam