Washington Afro-American reporter Stephen Colter remembered that he and Maurice Williams spent their lunch hour last Wednesday discussing one of Williams' deepest concerns - the role of a black journalist.
Both Williams, a 24-year-old reporter for WHUR radio news, and Colter covered the District government for small, predominantly black audiences and they debated whether it would be right for them to move to better paying jobs with wider audiences at white-owned newspapers and broadcast stations.
"He had decided that communications was it," recalled another friend of Williams, Drexel Yarborough, who had known him since childhood. "It was his effort to reach up by reaching within for the truth. He wanted to move faster, and was just getting to the point where he was really growing."
Williams and Colter never reached any conclusions during their luncheon discussion. They walked back to the District Building for a press conference in the City Council chairman's office. Just after they stepped out of the elevator on the fifth floor, the doors of the City Council offices swung open, a shotgun was fired and Williams, shot in the chest, spun around and fell.
"I keep hearing him say that last thing," Colter recalled. "He said, 'I'm shot.' He was just dead. It was no more Maurice."
Colter was among nearly 800 persons who joined Williams' parents, three brothers and other family members yesterday to mourn the death of the one person killed during last week's 36-hour armed takeover of the District Building by two Hanafi Muslims. Also in attendance at Turner Memorial AME Church at 6th and I Streets NW were Mayor Walter E. Washington, the entire City Council, D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy, coworkers from WHUR and other news media, and Iranian Ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi, who helped negotiate an end to the Hanafi siege.
The frony of Williams' death, many of his friends said, was that Williams' brief life had been marked by conditions quite opposite of those that brought it to an end.
"The only violence in Maurice's life was the violence he saw and tried to stop. The most he had time to do was love," said Drexel Yarborough, whose friendship with Williams began in kindergarten at Whittier Elementary School in Northwest Washington. "Maurice was brillant enough to have an ever-listening ear, and that warranted his having something to say as a journalist."
Williams grew up in a neighborhood that was "middle class, but but not white collar necessarily," according to schoolmate Yarborough. Many of the residents were federal employees like Maurice's parents, Lillie and Otto Williams.
He was just entering kindergarten when, during the early 1950s, the family moved to the house in the 600 block of Somerset Street NW.
"When we first went to kindergarten there were three or four blacks" in the neighborhood, Yarborough remembered. By the time they entered high school, the area, like many Washington neighborhoods and the city itself, had undergone a racial reversal.
"There were some rough times. It went from peaceful to volatile to stable. Our parents did not even want us to walk from house to house by ourselves," during the years of change, Yarborough said.
Young Williams' education was in the settings of Whittier Elementary, Paul Junior High, and Coolidge High Schools. All were within blocks of the Williams' home - a home that encouraged and sheltered its four sons without smothering.
"I believe in an open home, I always wanted my children to do what would make them happy," Lillie Williams said last week.
At Coolidge, amidst the usual adolescent groupings that tell much about where a person came from and where he is going, Maurice was "with the in crowd, but not a hoodlum," remembered schoolmate Kevin Dennis, a City Council employee who was among those trapped by the gunmen for a day and a half.
"He was always kidding, but he always knew when to be serious," said Dennis, who noted the same traits later as a classmate of Williams at Howard University. "He was very much into academic concerns. He wanted to be the best, but he would never say 'I'm going to be the best.'"
High school homeroom teacher Jean Brooks saw Maurice show "real leadership and a sense of responsibility. He always seemed to be taking his work very seriously," she noted, writing in his school record.
"A fine young man, very gentle, well-disciplined, and studious, but not honestly so, "Brooks said after learning of his death. Maurice graduated with above-average grades, and exceptional college entrance examinations scores according to Coolidge principal Otis Thompson.
The 1970 Coolidge yearbook lists 12 organizations and activities for Maurice Williams during his senior year, including the school's drill team, chemistry club and intramural basketball program. It is a list not just of memberships, but true participation, according to Yarborough, who said Williams used the organizations "as vehicles for what he wanted to accomplish."
The cadet corps, part of Washington's formerly mandatory high school ROTC program, fascinated Williams. "He loved the precision of our fancy drill team," Yarborough said. "He saw beauty in the ceremony, the uniform, the self discipline and self-control."
Of all the organizations, however, Williams' pride was the high school fraternity, Sigma Beta Upsilon, that he founded with his older brother, Michael, and three friends while at Coolidge. They organized activities that met the approval of sponsoring adults: excursion trips, ball games, fund raisers for charity and neighborhood improvement.
"That's when we got our direction to change the community to make it safe," Yarborough said. "We were young and we figured we could grow to include the city."
On Sunday, as Williams lay in state in the Martin Luther King chapel of Johnson & Jenkins funeral home, about 15 of his fraternity brothers, some of them returned from distant cities, walked solemnly together for a final salute at the coffin side. They then joined hands to repeat the fraternity's motto: "Loyalty, integrity, brotherhood."
"He was one of the most inventive people I knew," said Yarborough, a former seminary student now living in St. Paul, Minn., who sought out Williams when he needed to write out his request to be declared a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war draft. "He helped me so much. We leaned on each other spiritually, emotionally. Together we celebrated life."
During the funeral at Turner Memorial, where the 24-year-old Williams had been an usher as a child and a life-long member, several eulogists called for constructive memorials to his death.
"Will the beat go on as usual, or will this tragedy ultimately produce some good?" City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker challenged.
One memorial to Williams already has been established by his coworkers at WHUR, who have set up a broadcast journalism scholarship fund to encourage the education of other broadcast reporters.
Williams was trained at Howard University's School of Communications. He worked on school newspapers and was an intern at the school's radio station while a student. After graduating 18 months ago, Williams joined the station's staff as a full-time reporter.
The University's school of communications has turned out a number of black journalists in the past several years, many of whom have been imoued with a strong sense of racial pride and a feeling of special mission as black reporters. Among them were Williams and Colter - classmates at Howard - who pondered that special role just before Williams was slain.
"We talked about journalism," Colter recalled. "We talked about both of us working for black media. We were concerned about what we thought was a lack of timely responses from District officials when they find out you are with a less widely read or listened to organ."
Indeed, noted Wallace Terry, one of Williams' former teachers at Howard, "There are some who would suggest that a black journalist is less than legitimate."
Terry characterized Williams during yesterday's funeral as "the first reporter killed in the line of duty in Washington, D.C., considered by many the news capital of the world." He said Williams has joined the "pantheon of journalists killed in the line of duty."
The slain reporter was "unfettered by racism and economic greed," Terry said. "That is why he chose to be at Howard at WHUR and at the District Building."
"Maurice was a black journalist first and last," Terry said. "Maurice was no phony. He was the original."