As a young man, the Rev. Noble Williams worked as a locomotive engineer and he would periodically have to stay overnight in Birmingham, Ala.
Dorms were provided for the crew, but blacks stayed in one section and whites in the other.
“The next morning we would all get on the train and work together,” he said.
It was not the best of situations.
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But when it comes to civil rights, Williams knows he may have had it hard, but his grandparents and parents had a more difficult time.
The 62-year-old has now been senior pastor at Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church in Phenix City for 17 years and is most proud of a special place there called the Sit-in Café.
Designed like a diner from the 1960s, its purpose is to stimulate conversation about that time in American history.
The walls are adorned with black and white photographs depicting the civil rights movement. One shows a man drinking from a “colored people” water cooler. Another shows blacks sitting in the back of a bus. There are depressed black children standing in a cotton field and black adults at a lunch counter. Martin Luther King Jr. is shown delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech. Coretta Scott King is posed with Rosa Parks.
The basement room was formerly a kitchen. When a church building with a commercial kitchen was constructed, it became a break room.
“This is a vision the Lord gave us about a year ago,” Williams said. “I don’t think we do a good job imparting information about the civil rights struggle to our children.”
His generation heard details from their elders.
Williams can recall scenes on television of dogs and fire hoses being used against blacks.
He said while much progress has been made in race relations, there is still work to be done.
“Racism is a big part of the world and we need to know how to survive it,” Williams said.
The pastor wanted a place for remembrance and conversation and that is what the café provides.
“I think it is working,” he said.
There has been good dialogue between young and old.
“What they have now, the young people have to see from whence it came, what it took for us to get where we are,” he said. “We want them to know about the years of struggle that African Americans went through, the blood, sweat and tears, and show them that where we are now has not always been this way.”
Williams worked for 23 years with Norfolk Southern.
“It was a dream job,” he said. “It was exciting.”
But he did not stay long enough to retire. He resigned and went into the ministry.
“It was a calling,” he said.
When he left the railroad, he was already on the staff at Mount Zion, a church that has been around for more than 140 years. He was licensed in 1996 and ordained a year later. In 1999 he took over as pastor.
He grew up in the church at which he now preaches, being raised less than two blocks away. He attended Pacelli Catholic School in Columbus, Columbus State University and Beacon Theological Seminary.
He has preached in places as far away as Africa and has served people locally as a member of the Phenix City Council. His church, which features hospital, homeless and jail ministries, has as its motto, “The Safest Place in All the World is in the Will of God.”
Because churches played a large role in the civil rights movement, he believes a church is a perfect location for the café.
He said the church has always played a big role in political movements.
“The church should be a leader in every community, in every city,” he said.