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The Rev. Cecil Williams, SF champion of the poor, dies

San Francisco Mayor London Breed honoring the Rev. Cecil Williams last November
Lynn Friedman
Flickr / Creative Commons
San Francisco Mayor London Breed honoring the Rev. Cecil Williams last November

Cecil Williams was raised in a segregated town in West Texas.

In 1963, he caught a train headed for Oakland, but on a whim, decided to take a detour to the National Mall in Washington DC, to see the Rev. Dr, Martin Luther King Jr’s famous, “I Have A Dream” speech. This was the beginning of his long and impactful career as a Civil Rights leader here in the Bay Area, where he would become known for championing the rights of marginalized people.

When Williams arrived in San Francisco, attendance at his small congregation in the Tenderloin was in decline. He took over the all-white ministry, and got to work transforming it into a lively cultural center in the neighborhood, with raucous sermons, gospel, blues, and huge free meals for all the poor and homeless people in the neighborhood.

Williams co-founded Glide with his second wife, poet Janice Mirikitani.

Over the years, Glide would grow to a membership of 11,000 and an annual budget of $16 million. The nonprofit has a house of worship, a soup kitchen, a health program and a way station.

The Free Meals Program, which was launched in 1980, now feeds 2,000 people three hot meals a day. That’s a total of 750,000 meals-a-year.

Over the decades, Williams himself also became something of an institution. His generosity and love for the most marginalized in San Francisco made him a local celebrity. Those who have visited Glide to attend one of its meals or church services include Maya Angelou, Isabel Allende, Bono, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, and Warren Buffett.

Sunni M. Khalid is a veteran of more than 40 years in journalism, having worked in print, radio, television, and web journalism.
Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit newspaper, and a member of KALW's 2024 Audio Academy.