Community Connections are Key for African-American Studies Director

Last Updated on February 06, 2017 at 11:06 AM

Originally published February 06, 2017

By Leonard Martinez

UTEP Communications

As a student and teacher of history, Michael V. Williams, Ph.D., knows that history is an invaluable tool for understanding current events in any era.

New African-American Studies Director Michael V. Williams, Ph.D., sees history as a gateway that bridges the past with the present so students can see what their role should be in the future. Photo by J.R. Hernandez, UTEP Communications

“Teaching history gives you a sort of window into how things have happened before and what the reactions were then,” said Williams, a history professor and director of African-American Studies at UTEP. “What were the movements that developed out of previous instances of inequality or oppression, and then how do they compare to what we see today in many instances?” 

Williams became director of UTEP’s African-American Studies program in September 2016 after serving as dean of the Division of Social Sciences and associate professor of history at Tougaloo College in Mississippi from 2013-16. 

Maceo Dailey founded UTEP’s African-American Studies program in 1996 and was director of the program until his death in October 2015. 

For Williams, history is a gateway that bridges the past with the present so students can see what their role should be in the future. It leads students to ask, “How does this impact me?” 

“Looking at the African-American experience here in this country … I think also provides a picture of how these things impact individuals on a broader scale,” Williams said. “That’s something I find always to be relevant, because you give people an opportunity to understand the experiences of other groups of individuals who have faced similar problems. The African-American experience is full of opportunities in which you see groups working together to solve specific social and political problems. And that’s relevant today as much as it was relevant 10, 15, 20, 50 years ago.”

In addition to teaching history, Williams also wrote the 2011 book “Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr.” Evers was a civil rights activist in Mississippi in the 1950s and 60s. Williams’ goal was to make the book more than a biography on Evers and his work with the NAACP and wanted it to explore his role in the larger civil rights movement.

“I grew up in an environment in which my mother always talked about the importance of those who fought for civil equality, and Medgar Evers is one of those people,” Williams said. “I grew up hearing his name all the time. My mother was in many ways dismayed and upset that he didn’t get the kind of recognition that she thought he deserved, given what he meant to the civil rights movement in Mississippi and nationally.

Evers would come into Williams’ life again when he needed a topic for a 25-page paper in graduate school and his professor asked if he had heard of Evers.

“And so I wrote that 25-page paper that became a dissertation that became the book,” Williams said. “The book itself was a journey actually because my goal was to understand not only who he was, but why he became the kind of person he became. I wanted to know about him on a personal level, on a professional level and then also on a community level.”

Research on Evers included reading his papers, going to the Library of Congress to get an understanding of his NAACP work, and reading lots of newspaper articles, books and papers. Williams also interviewed Evers’ last remaining brother and sister, his wife, and a childhood friend. 

“Through (those interviews), I found out what kind of person he was,” Williams said. “I understood that his father and mother taught him self-sufficiency, and so by the time he got to be an adult, fighting in the movement for equality was the only thing he could do because his parents had brought him up with the idea that you are responsible for the community.”

A connection to the community is what Williams has tried to make a part of his professional career and part of what drew him to El Paso.

“When I looked into UTEP, I was really struck by the African-American Studies program’s commitment to community engagement and community involvement, and that is something that excited me,” Williams said.

Patricia Witherspoon, Ph.D., dean of UTEP’s College of Liberal Arts, said students will benefit from Williams’ experience with community engagement.

“He brings an outstanding reputation in terms of his community service and community outreach that I think is very important at UTEP,” Witherspoon said.

Williams would like to connect UTEP’s African-American Studies program with similar programs across the country. He also is interested in having students visit those other institutions as well as tour areas of Mississippi that played a role in civil rights history.