How I Learned to Live a Life That Matters From a Civil Rights Pioneer

Michael Martin • 3 minutes

“You’re looking at history right now.”

He continued, “I am one of the oldest active civil rights leaders still alive.”

The man was Reverend G. H. Williams, a pioneer of the American civil rights movement who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King. Staring up into his eyes, I could feel the weight of his words. He recounted stories that made my head spin in disbelief.

“I am the first Black face that walked into a white restaurant.”

“I am the first Black face that got put in jail trying to get a reservation at the Holiday Inn.”

“My children were two of the first Black children to walk into a white school.”

Rev. Williams’ stories felt surreal and alien to me. But he captivated me with his passion and wisdom. He transported me back in time to see the world through his eyes.

“I was with the last white boys who got murdered for sitting at a table helping Black people register to vote.”

In the heat of the civil rights movement, Rev. Williams, along with Dr. King and many other like-minded young men and women, banded together in civil disobedience against a culture of racial inequality. They sat in restaurants, hotels, and bathrooms where they weren’t allowed simply because of their skin color.

It was dangerous work. Rev. Williams was arrested over 18 times. Many others were arrested, beaten, or murdered.

With a somber face that sent chills across my freckled white skin, he said, “Those of us who had already counted the cost kissed our sweet wives and kids goodbye—knowing we were going to jail.” His strong voice began to quiver as he told us how they would prepare for each day’s march.

In the morning, before walking out the door, they would place three things in their pockets: a washcloth, a toothbrush, and a dime, knowing they would likely be spending the night in jail.

Rev. Williams hammered home his point. “Where you are has been watered with blood, sweat, tears, untimely deaths of individuals—white and Black—who would be alive today if they had not looked through the telescope of time to see you sitting here.”

To live a life that matters, to accomplish freedom, these men and women had to do things no one else was willing to do. They “looked through the telescope of time,” saw what the world would become if they did nothing, and decided to do something about it.

What do you see when you look into your own telescope? Does it seem too big? Too scary? Too costly to change?

“Whatever you set out to do—if it’s worthwhile, it’s worth sacrificing for.”

Reverend G.H. Williams 

He ended his talk with a challenging question. It must be answered if you want your life to make a difference.

“My challenge to you, young people—beautiful young people—how much are you willing to sacrifice for your future?”

When I peer into my own telescope, I see a future where Dr. King’s dream will become reality. I see the countless faces of all colors from every nation and tribe gathered around Heaven’s throne in adoration of our great God. And I pray and work to see his dream become ever more real in this life, too.

What will you do to live a life that matters? What are you willing to sacrifice to make it happen? Your comfort, dignity, money, time? If it’s worthwhile, then it’s worth sacrificing for.