Hosea Williams, 74, a top lieutenant to Martin Luther King Jr. who battled for civil rights for more than three decades after King's death, died of cancer Nov. 16 at a hospital here.

Mr. Williams was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and had a cancerous kidney removed in 1999. After the surgery, he underwent a series of chemotherapy treatments.

Mr. Williams never lost the combative spirit that boosted him from the obscurity of a government agricultural chemist's job in Savannah, Ga., to the front of the civil rights fray of the 1960s.

When he was jailed, which happened more than 125 times, he often waved it off as "just another attempt to silence Hosea Williams" or to stop his attacks on "the downtown power structure." He once took a traffic conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he lost.

Mr. Williams scorned most elected black officials, whom he accused of turning their backs on the American poor.

His graying, goateed chin and raspy voice were fixtures at civil rights meetings and protests.

His following was strongest among older blacks, many of whom weathered the 1960s with him and who identified with his hand-clapping, singing rhetoric that recalled a more turbulent time.

Mr. Williams was born in Attapulgus, Ga., the illegitimate son of a blind girl who fled a state training school when she discovered she was pregnant. She died while giving birth to another child, and Mr. Williams was raised by a grandfather, whom he described as a tough man who had killed at least three people, one on the steps of a church on a Sunday morning.

He said in interviews that he left home about age 14 because of wanderlust and local outrage at his alleged relationship with a white girl. He held odd jobs across north Florida and worked for a time as a shill for a gambler who plied the citrus camps.

He wound up in the Army and was badly wounded in Europe during World War II before returning to Georgia. He was beaten bloody in Georgia while trying to use a whites-only drinking fountain at a bus station in Americus.

During the next five weeks in a military hospital, he recalled, he kept thinking "I'd fought on the wrong side."

Mr. Williams later finished high school and Morris Brown College and taught chemistry briefly.

He joined the civil rights movement full time in 1962 while living in Savannah. He recalled his children crying in a Savannah drug store when he told them they could not join white children spinning on soda counter stools because of segregation rules.

He became King's advance man throughout the South in the 1960s.

"I, as field director, would go ahead of the others and mobilize the street people in the black communities," he recalled. "Jesse Jackson would come in later and deal with the middle-class blacks, and Andy Young would negotiate with the white power structure.

"Dr. [Ralph] Abernathy served as Reverend King's closest adviser and would soften up the crowds before King spoke."

Mr. Williams and John Lewis, who has served as an Atlanta representative in Congress since 1986, led marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on "Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965.

In the ensuing years Mr. Williams retained the mentality that carried him through the often-bloody '60s.

In 1987, he led a march into virtually all-white Forsyth County north of Atlanta and was met by members of the Ku Klux Klan and sympathizers throwing bottles and rocks.

As he ducked the projectiles, he recalled later, he was thinking of King, who was assassinated in 1968. "I know that old rascal was just a-laughin'. Yeah, old King just a-layin' there in that grave. He was just tickled to death. Old Hosea is still trying," Mr. Williams said.

The attack on Mr. Williams's small group of protesters led to a march by thousands the next week and drew national attention to Forsyth County.

Over the years, Mr. Williams served in the Georgia Legislature, on the Atlanta City Council and on the DeKalb County Commission before retiring from politics in 1994. He also operated a bonding company and a chemical company that specialized in cleaning supplies.

Mr. Williams managed to stay in the public eye through his holiday dinners for the poor, which fed thousands each year, and through 1960s-style symbolic gestures, such as jailhouse fasts or camping out atop King's tomb.

In 1977, he was ousted as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by then-President Joseph Lowery in a power struggle. Officially, the reason was that he was not devoting full time to the job. It took a court order to get Mr. Williams to vacate his office.

He was arrested twice on charges of trying to carry a gun aboard an airliner. One charge was dropped, and Mr. Williams pleaded no contest to the other.

His wife, Juanita Williams, died Aug. 23 of a form of anemia at the age of 75. Their son, Hosea II, was 43 when he died of a rare form of leukemia in 1998.

He is survived by a daughter, Elisabeth Williams-Omilami. She announced last month that she would take over temporarily as executive director of Hosea's Feed the Hungry and Homeless campaign, which serves 35,000 meals on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mr. Williams started the charity dinners in 1970, and they now include a job fair and health screenings by volunteer doctors and dentists.