Dr. Lawrence H. Williams, 1943-2016

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Dr. Lawrence H. Williams, who served with distinction as a professor in the Africana Studies and History departments from 1985 to 2010.

We invite those who knew and loved Dr. Williams to leave memories and testimonies on this page.

Decorah Newspapers published this obituary:

Dr. Lawrence Henry Williams, born Sept. 14, 1943, in Louisville, Ky., departed life, July 31, 2016. A wake is Thursday, Aug. 4, from 6 to 9 p.m., and the funeral service is at 11 a.m. Friday, Aug. 5, both at Green Street Baptist Church in Louisville. Flowers and cards may be sent to: Green Street Baptist Church, attention Kim Harris, 519 East Gray St., Louisville, KY 40202.

Williams was a proud “son” of Green Street Baptist Church where he trained under spiritual mentor, Rev. J.V. Bottoms, Sr. He held the bachelor’s degree from Kentucky State University, the master of divinity degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the master’s and doctoral degrees in American studies from the University of Iowa.

Williams taught at Luther College in Decorah for 25 years. He taught Africana studies, history and Paideia courses until his retirement in 2010. Williams was a nationally recognized authority on the black church and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, in which he participated and worked with many of the best-known leaders of the movement. He was the author of numerous monographs, articles and book chapters on the role of the black church in the Civil Rights struggle. Luther’s African and African-American Studies program established the Martin Luther King, Jr. Lecture in 1987 to provide an ongoing scholarly conversation about the struggle for human rights in the United States. Williams planned and solicited funding for more than 20 of these lectures throughout his Luther career. His dedication to the lecture series reflected a commitment to expanding civil rights that went beyond academic study. Williams’s personal experiences with the Civil Rights Movement and its protests allowed him to help students relive the moment, and his acquaintance with civil rights leaders brought extraordinary people to campus to share their lives and stories with a new generation.

In 2010, he retired to his hometown of Louisville, Ky., where he actively taught at Simmons College of Kentucky and served as historian-in-residence.

Dr. Williams is survived by his wife, Queen Williams (Jackson); sons, Lawrence, Jr., Martin D.; daughter, Shari; daughter-in-law, Danita; aunt, Willie Cunningham; uncle, James Williams; grandchildren; nieces, nephews, cousins; in-laws; colleagues; students; and friends worldwide.

He was preceded in death by (mother) Louise F. Williams, and (grandson) Basil Anthony Robinson, Jr.

The family requests memorials in Lawrence's name be made to the Williams Endowment Fund for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Lecture or the Cultural and Racial Diversity Scholarship at Luther College.

This article describing the 2010 Martin Luther King Jr. Day event includes a description of Dr. Williams' early years in Louisville and his civil rights activism. 

Photo from Chips' Farewell to Dr. Lawrence Williams
Dr. Lawrence H. Williams, 1943-2016

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  • August 3 2016 at 3:59 pm
    Norma J. Hervey

    Lawrence, you created legacies that will always continue to make the lives of all who knew you better and will teach  those who never will know you personally to celebrate the history, sacrifices, and lives of African-Americans.  There has never been a time when this knowledge was not essential, including our own.  Bless your family and their contributions to your work and life.  We will miss you.



    Norma J. Hervey, Ph.D.
    Professor of History

  • August 3 2016 at 4:01 pm
    Jacqueline Wilkie

    Here is my memory --Lawrence was so resistant to new technology that he was constantly on the look out for a student assistant who was tech savey. This kept three Opuni sisters gainfully employed over the course of their Luther College careers. After that he would shout from his office for me to come and solve whatever email problem he was having.

  • August 3 2016 at 10:54 pm
    Brandon Schwegel
    Dr. Williams was a true inspiration to me throughout my experience at Luther College. His teaching strategy sparked a lifelong passion that I have for African American history and specifically the Civil Rights Movement. I am currently a social studies teacher in northern Minnesota and have had the opportunity to create a course called American Diversity, which was directly a result of Dr. Williams' impact on me. I have shared hundreds of stories about my experiences with Dr. Williams with my students. I was fortunate enough to have taken part in the J-Term travelling Civil Rights course in 2003 and was able to to see first hand the depth of knowledge he had in this field. He has cemented a legacy at Luther College that will have a profound impact upon how future generations will deep and meaningful understanding of African American history. My condolences to his wife Queen, and their children.
  • August 3 2016 at 11:18 pm
    Julia Schumacher
    I only took one course with Dr. Williams, but it was as clear to me then as it is now that Luther College owes the decades-long tradition of their Africana Studies department to his innovation, perseverance, and dedication. His course was one of my requirements for the major, and I remember my first day sitting in class before he came in; his reputation preceded him, and yet I had no idea what to expect. My studies had leaned heavily toward African studies until that point, but that first semester of my senior year at Luther is when I began to make the connections I needed to understand the story of my own country. Dr. Williams not only provided the structure for that understanding, but led the way in the classroom by being a partner to us on the journey. I am one of many who credit their life's path to the foundations of learning I experienced in the Africana Studies department at Luther. That's just one portion of Dr. Williams' broad-reaching legacy.
  • August 3 2016 at 11:18 pm
    Linnea (Nelson) Nicol
    He was a brilliant man of learning and full of the unquenchable fire of the holy spirit. He changed the way I thought about the world and I am a better person for having studied at his feet.
  • August 4 2016 at 7:04 am
    Pete Hoesing
    Rev. Dr. Williams taught students about American history, difference, and what it means to live in solidarity with the oppressed. He was a towering figure at Luther who made these lessons accessible to so many who might have otherwise remained naïve about both privilege and struggle. At my first academic post on an HBCU campus, I recalled his wisdom and his powerful optimism on a daily basis. Luther has lost a treasured Emeritus and a beloved friend.
  • August 4 2016 at 8:18 am
    Paul Gardner
    Lawrence and I came to Luther the same year, 1985. Many things about Lawrence stick in my memory but I will mention two. He always ended a conversation by asking me how things were going in my life. That was a gentle reminder to me that he cared more about me than the ideas we had been talking about. The second thing is what I took away from several guest lectures Lawrence made to my Politics and Religion classes. His lectures - and they were lectures - were filled with scholarly references. Lawrence was a true scholar, with a personal touch. In his unique way, he was a very generous human being. To Lawrence's family, to am very sorry for your loss.
  • August 4 2016 at 9:14 am
    Cristin (Grant) Waterbury
    Aside from all the wonderful academic and scholarly teachings I gained from studying under Dr. Williams, some of my most fond memories are less academic in nature. For example, he taught me the correct pronunciation of "Louisville," and what "nappy hair" was, thanks to his infamous overhead projector transparencies. And, he taught me the song "We Shall Overcome." The first time he led our class in singing it, I thought certainly he must be joking.This is a college level class, we're not really going to sing and sway together, are we? Yes, indeed we are. As I continued in his courses, the occasional singing of "We Shall Overcome" in class continued and I grew to love it. A couple of years ago when my daughter was in kindergarten, she came home one day from school with a book about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., along with endless questions about who Dr. King was, what the Civil Rights Movement was, etc. She was (and remains, now coming up on only 7 years old) fascinated with the concept of civil rights and is baffled by the idea of people being treated differently "just because they have brown skin" (her words). I've sung her the song and explained what it meant to people like Dr. King. I like to think that might have made Dr. Williams happy.
  • August 4 2016 at 11:23 am
    Wayne Anderson

    I will always be grateful to Lawrence for not only teaching me about the importance of African-American history, but also introducing me to the field of American Studies. In fact his recommendation letter helped me land in the very same graduate program at the University of Iowa from which he emerged. Now that I am leading college classes of my own, I think of him and his epic roll calls at the beginning of each semester. I can't hope to emulate his jovial and humanizing mixture of stories, nicknames, and occasional mispronunciations, but hopefully I capture the spirit that helped put his students at ease.

    Whenever my name came up on his list he would routinely ask, "Anderson, how many pop machines have you got in your small hometown these days?" My answer was always, "Just the two," but I'm happy that he never stopped asking. I will remember him fondly, and I send my condolences to his family and friends.


  • August 4 2016 at 12:55 pm
    Dan Haddinger
    A few of us have been sharing some memories on Facebook About him as well. Just a few fun things: - You know, he was raised up in Louville [spelled as pronounced] Kentucky. He was friends with Muhammad Ali's brother. Except he always knew him as Cassius. (20 years later and I still remember this) - Attendence at the beginning of class, his answer was always, "Fair enough" - Dramatic pauses during a lecture, then moving on with, "Point #3..." - He called me into his office for my senior paper discussion, very seriously, and then asked me to present it to the History Dept. Shocked and honored. - Shortly after taking my first class with him, I changed majors and asked him if he would be my advisor. He was a great man that had a lot of great stories. He will truly be missed. Thank you Professor Williams.
  • August 4 2016 at 1:48 pm
    Kerwin Kilian

    My first class with Dr. Williams was second semester Paideia my freshman year. As others have recalled fondly, his class roll calls were something to experience. As a freshman who was trying to remain anonymous, I can remember getting brought quickly into the spotlight when asked if I knew someone who taught at UW-Platteville (in my hometown). Caught off guard, I stammered out some weak reply that received the (already mentioned) response, "Fair enough." I found Dr. Williams to be an excellent professor and my Paideia semester was followed by several more African-American courses as I completed my History major. Thank you, Dr. Williams, and my condolences to his family.

  • August 4 2016 at 8:27 pm
    Sara Usgaard
    Such a gentle soul this man had. As a bright eyed Freshman in his Paidea class he always challenged me and pushed me to find the deeper meaning in things. I will always remember his laugh. RIP Professor Williams. My thoughts and prayers are with your family. Enjoy your next journey.
  • August 4 2016 at 10:04 pm
    Laura Boleen
    Dr. Williams intimidated me immensely in my first class with him, as I think he did to many others, and he seemed to enjoy and find humor in that knowledge! He was immensely passionate and an amazing story teller. Even today, I never fail to look for the black nisse in what used to be his house in downtown Decorah, and although it's been years since I've graduated and he's lived there, to me Decorah will always be synonymous with Dr. Williams.
  • August 5 2016 at 10:19 am
    Russell Schouweiler
    Professor Williams had a profound effect on my experience at Luther College and my life. The first class I had the privilege in taking from him was Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. I was immediately engaged not only by the content, but also by the orator skills of Dr. Williams. I was so engrossed that I immediately signed up for his J-Term class in 2003, taking a Civil Rights Trip through the South. I was hooked and it lead me to a major in Africana Studies and the opportunities to travel to Africa and around the world. I am forever grateful to him for his tutelage as a teacher and also for his guidance as a friend as I returned to campus as a staff member just before his retirement. For those of us who had the privilege in taking his classes we are forever linked by his great stories and humorous sayings. RIP Professor, you will be missed.
  • August 7 2016 at 3:06 pm
    Heather Rietz
    I chose to major in Africana studies because of his humor and knowledge. He will be missed. My prayers go out to his family and friends.
  • August 8 2016 at 2:01 pm
    Bill Weiss
    Professor Williams was a great teacher. I will always remember the class he taught about the Civil Rights Movement. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.
  • August 28 2016 at 2:16 pm
    Chris Angelica
    I had a course with Professor Williams where the course texts offered different perspectives on the slave experience. While it was always clear where Lawrence stood about something, he was never afraid to explore to talk about other perspectives. Often, he could do so in a real disarming way that was just so unique to him. This was probably the best part about Lawrence - That he was just another guy with zero pretentiousness. As much as I'll remember Lawrence's deep knowledge of race in America, I'll also remember just chatting in his office about our hometowns and families.

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