Ken Williams on facing racism, hope for future

June 16th, 2020

CHICAGO -- During a powerful 34-minute interview with White Sox TV, White Sox executive vice president Ken Williams shared a story about a recent conversation he had with a very close white friend of his, an older man.

The question this friend asked Williams was, "What is it like to be Black?"

“And my answer was ‘It’s exhausting,’” Williams said during the interview released Monday by the team. “And at times it has been more exhausting than others. At times, you want to give up and you don’t see hope or a vision for a better future.”

Williams, who will be celebrating 40 years in baseball in 2022 as a player, scout and World Series winning executive, discussed in this sitdown interview how race and racism have impacted his life and career. Those comments included Williams’ perspective on George Floyd’s death at the hands of police after he was arrested in Minneapolis, which Williams described as watching “a murder right in front of our eyes.”

His words were powerful, filled with hope but honest caution at the same time. Williams became the White Sox first African American general manager and the third in Major League history following Bill Lucas (Atlanta, 1979) and Bob Watson (Houston, 1994-95, Yankees, 1996-97) when he was named to the post by the White Sox in October 2000.

From 2001-03, Williams and Jerry Manuel formed the first African American general manager/manager tandem in Major League history. When Williams was promoted to GM in 2000, he returned home to find a vulgar racial slur on the side of his house stating that no African American should run the White Sox, with the word White in all caps.

“It hurt. It hurt,” Williams recalled. “I called my father, and he’s not here anymore, but he told me go get your sons, and I showed them what was written. And I had to have a conversation about what it meant for them, and I had to take a little bit of their innocence away.

“You have to protect your kids. Make sure you are doing and saying the right things out there, so they are not the next in what has become a long line of victims.”

Emotions briefly overtook Williams during this story before moving on to some of the hate mail he received along with White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and, eventually, Ozzie Guillen, a Venezuelan native who was hired as manager prior to the ’04 season.

“Some, we laughed about,” Williams said. “Some, we needed security for.”

Williams continues to have conversations with his three sons, with Ken. Jr., who works on special assignments in the White Sox operations department and marched in a recent protest near the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The elder Williams was proud and worried for his son, but mostly proud.

“Young people are going to be the ones to change this,” Williams said. “So many young people are out there fighting for each other. That’s what I see as hope. People have commented on the looting and the violence that has happened as a result of all of this. I do not excuse it for anyone. I think it’s wrong. But I don’t know what the expectation is when you take hope from people, when they don’t have a vision for a better life, forget better life, a better tomorrow. ...

“This hasn’t surprised me. What has surprised me, and I have to say thank you to all the people of all different backgrounds I’ve seen out in the streets, saying Black Lives Matter.

“I had given up hope that in my lifetime I would see substantial gains in this area,” Williams added. “Black people alone cannot erase racism. No more than Black people could have solved slavery on our own. It appears to me, maybe I’m overly optimistic, that people have seen enough.”

Williams’ first experience with racism came when he was somewhere around nine years old, as his father, Jerry, sued the city of San Jose, Calif., for the right to risk his life and become a firefighter. Death threats followed. Williams’ father gave him a .22-caliber handgun when the two were on a fishing trip together and taught him how to use it to protect the family when his father wasn’t home.

“That was the first time I felt the color of my skin made me different somehow,” Williams said.

But Williams grew up in an inclusive and progressive family. His biological mother was one of the first Black Panthers in Oakland and his godfather is John Carlos, who delivered a Black Power salute on the podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics after winning the bronze in the 200 meters. Williams said there were people of all colors, ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations in his house growing up, much like what he is seeing in the protests presently.

“I’ve asked myself a number of times what would my father think,” Williams said. “We probably would have been having conversations I’ve been having internally: 'Wait a minute, this looks different and this feels different. Is this the beginning of something and how would we recognize it?'

“Is it OK to have real optimism about what we see, or should we exercise caution and is this going away in the next couple of weeks? I have been impressed. I’ve been impressed with the union, the unity, that has come about as the result of it.”