Caroline Hunter opens up a binder densely packed with years of newspaper clippings, decades-old photos, letters and other paper mementos. Beside her is a stack of books marked with dozens of blue Post-it notes. The meticulous bookkeeping is not a hobby. And though the man to whom these records pertain is Caroline’s late husband, Ken Williams, this scrapbook filled with Ken’s work, and articles and books mentioning him, is not a memorial: for Caroline, it is a civic responsibility.
Often baseless choices are made about who is retained in public memory and who is not. History is condensed into the stories which reflect most flatteringly on current politicos; important people and their stories fall by the wayside. Among the activists most maneuvered out of history are those who fought America’s shameful political and financial investments in South Africa during apartheid.
Ken Williams and Caroline Hunter are two of them.
Caroline Hunter graduated from Xavier College and in 1968 was hired as a research chemist at Polaroid, which had a laudable reputation for diversity. There she met Ken Williams, who was moving up in the company. With an interest in photography, he intimately understood the Polaroid products.
“He was intuitively smart,” Ms. Hunter remembers. “He would heat up the film to make it develop faster, or throw it in the snow to stop it.” Eventually Mr. Williams became, she says, “the only self-trained photographer and the only black photographer in the photography group. The only time they ever put out a supplement to the annual report was when they published his photos.
“They sent his photos to Italy,” she recalls. “They didn’t send him.”
One day while Ms. Hunter and Mr. Williams were at lunch, they spotted a mock-up of some work done in South Africa. At the time Ms. Hunter’s understanding about South Africa was limited to three events: “I remember some attention paid after King’s assassination, I remember a book I read in 11th grade that made me cry and I remember watching the massacre shots on TV.”
Still, she was intrigued about Polaroid’s little-known involvement in the country. “We’d go around saying to people, What is Polaroid doing in South Africa?
“We would ask a lot of the international employees and they would say, ‘How’d you find out?’ and ‘Why are you worried?’ We asked a lot of employees at Polaroid, but nobody paid attention, because at the time, they were the portrait of liberalism.” Ms. Hunter continues in her reckoning: “They would say, ‘It’s only one tenth of one percent of the company.’ But we figured, if it’s a billion dollar company, that’s a lot of money.”
The pair learned that it was Polaroid equipment the South African government used to produce the passbook photos, the dog tags, which were so infamously used to further the persecution of blacks in South Africa. So Ms. Hunter and Mr. Williams decided to compile and distribute a leaflet: “Polaroid imprisons black people in sixty seconds. They’ll sell it to South Africa, they’ll sell it to Mississippi and Georgia too ... seize the time.”
The pair went into the building over the weekend and plastered it everywhere they could. “We showed up on Monday, and the cops were waiting for us. We said, ‘You don’t believe us? Call public relations.’ The first day, so many people called they took the phone off the hook.”
It was 1970. The so-called Polaroid Revolution, and the divestment movement at large, was sparked.
The Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement demanded Polaroid should denounce apartheid; get out of South Africa; and turn over money in South Africa to recognized revolutionary parties.
Polaroid insisted Mr. Williams and Ms. Hunter cease the movement. A group of middle-management blacks there banded together to isolate themselves from the two whistle-blowers; they were excluded from any sort of normal office socialization. Still Hunter and Williams, using the company library, learned more about Polaroid’s South African involvement.
But the two continued to speak about the relationship between their employer and South Africa, including testifying at the United Nations. special committee on apartheid in February 1971 “The next Tuesday, I was suspended without pay for vituperative behavior,” Ms. Hunter said.
The two struggled to get hired elsewhere, until a federal library program employed them in greater Boston area libraries. It was at this time, that Ken Williams developed another interest, and another cause: jazz.
“Ken believed that jazz was America’s only original classical music and that instead of celebrating classical music, we should be celebrating jazz,” Ms. Hunter remembers. “He would offer free concerts at the library for families. He put together a press packet, and a professional video would run on cable for a month.” Williams continued to advertise the events and build his relationship with local and national jazz musicians. Eventually, the program grew too large to fit in the library and was often held in venues.
The couple’s daughter Lisette explains: “Sometimes it was standing room only because they got so popular ... and sometimes they would give my dad a certain time frame and it would run over because the musicians had so much fun, they didn’t want to stop.” Mr. Williams often turned the concerts into benefits to raise money for causes such as children in Ethiopia and Somalia.
When Mr. Williams died in 1998, says his widow, “his funeral was a jazz concert. We had Sonny Watson, Frank Wilkins on organ, Yasco Caboto on synthesizer ... and then an a capella group that did Amazing Grace in five-part harmony.”
It Lisette who was inspired to create a scholarship fund in her father’s memory: “The inspiration really came from being around my parents. They were always willing to help someone else ... After he died I immediately told her, ‘I think we should do a scholarship.’”
Mr. Williams’s love of golf led to the idea of a golf tournament as a fundraiser for the scholarship. “Since my dad really enjoyed the Vineyard and playing at Mink Meadows it should be there, we decided.”
Ms. Hunter adds, “Even after he got sick we came to the Vineyard: he had a surgery that he healed from here.”
In 2003, the scholarship fund grew large enough to offer scholarships to students not only in Cambridge, but also in Martha’s Vineyard. This year, the Ken Williams Memorial Scholarship Fund has decided to honor the memory of the late Mandred Henry, former Martha’s Vineyard NAACP president, by giving a social justice scholarship to a senior from the regional high school.
The Ken Williams Memorial Scholarship Golf Tournament is Sunday, August 24, at Mink Meadows in Vineyard Haven. Registration begins at 7:30 a.m. or online at kenwilliamsgolf.eventbrite.com. For details, call 508-693-0600.