Powerful perspective: Sox VP Kenny Williams opens up on race, racism
Before the 2001 baseball season, Kenny Williams became the first African-American general manager in Chicago professional sports history.
Taking over the White Sox, he was just the third African-American GM in major-league history, behind Bill Lucas and Bob Watson.
It didn't take long for the mail to start coming in.
"That mail that (Sox chairman) Jerry Reinsdorf and I used to get when I was first hired," Williams said in a video released by the White Sox on Monday. "Some we laughed about, and some we needed security for. He was called (bleep) lover ...
"I don't even want to dignify these people by saying the things they said about him when he hired me and the things they said about me. This has brought back some things that I had buried."
Race and racism have been international topics since Memorial Day, when George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis.
Williams, now the White Sox's executive vice president, has seen everything unfold.
"We watched a murder, right in front of our eyes," he said. "We've seen it before. I don't know that we've seen it that casual before, with total disregard to humanity before. When I hear 'I can't breathe,' I don't just hear it, I felt that. It's been difficult to breathe for a long time."
Racism in America has been on Williams' mind for almost 50 years, dating back to his boyhood days in Northern California.
"I've kind of been struggling as to how to start this whole conversation out," Williams before expressing his feelings with a personal, powerful perspective for almost 35 minutes. "I was 9 years old, I may have felt it. I think I felt it before then because that was my godfather, John Carlos, who raised his fist in the 1968 Olympics. But I was only 5 years old at that time. I knew enough to know that in the subsequent years ... there was a lot of political discussion in my household. A lot of anxiety."
Williams was in junior high school in 1977, the year Carlos' ex-wife Kim committed suicide.
"It was because of the pressure and the intensity in which they spewed their hatred toward (Carlos)," Williams said.
Before that, the anxiety came from Williams' late father, Jerry, having to sue the city of San Jose in his quest to work as a fireman.
"For the right to risk his life, really," Williams said. "We got death threats, things thrown at our front door, knocks at our door at various times of the night. When I was 9 years old my father, on a fishing trip, gave me a .22 and taught me how to shoot a gun because there would be times he wasn't home and he was fearful someone may come in.
"He had to explain that to a 9-year-old at the time, and I learned how to shoot. I had a responsibility to protect the household if something happened. That was the first time I felt that the color of my skin made me different somehow."
Starting as a player, Williams has been a part of major-league baseball for 39 years. "I recognize I'm now in a position of good fortune," he said. "A certain amount of wealth, a certain amount of comfort."
Yet, when a white friend recently asked him what it's like being black, Williams didn't have to think about an answer.
"It's exhausting," said the man who built the White Sox's 2005 World Series championship team. "If it's this exhausting for me, what's it like for people who are struggling day to day? I'm 56 years old and I still have to worry about what I'm wearing when I get up in the morning, depending on where I'm going. I still have to get on an elevator, and if I don't have on my executive clothes, a suit and tie, I still have to see a woman who sees me and backs off the elevator, in 2020?"
Williams has seen and heard some terrible things in his life, but he does take some solace in the protests that have been taking place around the world since Floyd's death.
"I had given up hope," Williams said. "I'm telling you, I had given up hope that in my lifetime I would see substantial gains in this area. Black people alone cannot erase racism, no more than black people could have solved slavery on our own. We need white people to do that and it appears to me, maybe I'm overly optimistic, that people have seen enough.
"Once it happened that the positive voices in the protests took that shape, I didn't know what to think. I didn't know what to do, I didn't know what to say because I had never seen people come together like that for a black cause. Not in my lifetime. I just hope it also leads to some of these marches heading down to the voter's registration booth and people showing up to vote.
"I hope some of these marches lead to people being just as angry about crime within the community. Not police crime, but black-on-black crime. I don't know what the numbers were the night of the first riots, but there were 18 to 20 some odd people that also lost their lives that night. We should be just as outraged about them as we are about Mr. Floyd."