Robert G. Williams

Robert G. Williams

Robert G. Williams grew up over the mountain on a hilltop farmstead his grandparents, Robert H. and Margaret C. Bromberg, bought in the 1920s before paved roads and schools but with enough room for children to build houses on later. There, attentive parents and grandparents, and a caring African-American couple, Jimmy Lee Nance and Henrietta Nance, raised him alongside a growing number of siblings and cousins. Robert worshipped with his family at Independent Presbyterian Church, attended Crestline Elementary School and Mountain Brook Junior High, and graduated from Shades Valley High School in 1967.

Robert studied for four years at Princeton University but returned to Birmingham for Christmas holidays and summer jobs. After graduating from Princeton with a B.A. in Economics in 1971, he enrolled in graduate school at Stanford University and spent summers doing research in California and Latin America with a two-year stint at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, returning to Birmingham only for short visits with family. After earning a doctorate in Economics from Stanford in 1978, Robert moved to North Carolina to teach economics at Guilford College, a Quaker school in Greensboro, where he did research and taught for more than four decades before retiring in 2021.

In 2019, family members from Florida, North Carolina, Maryland, and Washington State visited his older brother, who hosted the reunion in Birmingham. They attended the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service at Independent Presbyterian Church and visited the Civil Rights Museum with their mother, Marna Bromberg Williams, age 93. At the museum, they lingered at a glass case containing a patent leather dress shoe that helped identify the body of eleven-year-old Denise McNair, who lost her life in the blast on September 15, 1963. The visit sparked memories of that fateful day and raised questions about their mother’s decade-long partnership with people of Southtown from after the bombing in 1963 to 1974. With the encouragement of Ann Jimerson, Robert and his sister, “Little” Marna, interviewed their mother (age 96) in January 2023, while Ann Jimerson facilitated and recorded the interview as a Kids in Birmingham 1963 oral history video.

September 15, 1963: The Day our Driver Changed Course

Trigger alert: This essay contains a racial slur used by some white people at that time to demean Black children as a group.

Our family lived on a wooded hilltop in the white suburb of Mountain Brook, protected from sleepless nights of bombings and police oppression plaguing Black families in the Magic City. My few glimpses of struggles for justice downtown were through safety glass windows of a 1959 Chevrolet station wagon that sported jet fins, a V-8 engine, and could haul up to a dozen kids.

On Mother’s Day 1961 when I was age twelve, Mama drove my siblings and me downtown to the Trailways station to pick up our cousin from Mississippi. There was no place to park out front. A crowd milled around, spilling out of the station. Mama noted how strange there were no officers or police cars anywhere. She double-parked. Leaving the engine running, she instructed my older brother, “Go in, find Stevie, grab his bags and bring him back immediately.” “Robert, climb in the back and open the tailgate window.” While my brother was inside, a half dozen white men toting tire irons, bats, and chains rushed toward the rear of the station, almost tripping over each other as if late for an event. Finally, my brother and Stevie emerged from the front of the station. I took Stevie’s suitcase, and the two of them piled in the middle seat. Mama scratched off before I could close the tailgate window.

The front page of the next day’s newspaper featured a circle of white men taking turns beating an unidentifiable victim on the floor.