African-American father, son worked to end discrimination in the Navy as officers (Mel Williams, 26th Co.)

by Aliah Willamson

Oct 30, 2018

During a time when African Americans were not allowed to become officers, one man worked to reach the highest ranks that he could.

Years later, he watched as his son became one of the highest-ranked officers in the United States Navy.

“I came into a segregated Navy. My job was given to me based on my race,” said Master Chief Melvin Williams Sr. USN (ret.). 

Williams Sr. began his service in 1951 and is a Korean War Veteran. 

“I was a high school graduate, and my scores indicated that I could have chosen most anything within the Navy to work. However, I wasn’t given that opportunity,” shared Williams Sr. 

“I was a steward. I cooked…and took care of officers’ laundry. We [also] did their housekeeping,” he continued.

Williams Sr. served aboard submarines and other naval ships. Throughout his career, he brought to the attention of the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, discriminatory practices within the Navy. These issues would later be ended by Admiral Zumwalt. 

“There was always a level of respect and I always respected the officers that I served with and under, so it meant a lot for my son to become an officer and to attend the Naval Academy,” said Williams Sr. 

Williams Sr.’s son, Vice Admiral Melvin Williams Jr. USN (ret.), served in the Navy beginning in 1978.

“I stand on the shoulders of my father…and his generation,” said Williams Jr. “They believed that even though they had fewer opportunities, that they were committed to the mission. I never heard a negative comment about the U.S. Navy from these hardworking people,” he continued. 

“There were relatively few minorities in the Naval Academy,” said Williams Jr. of his journey. “Many of us knew that we were going to be the first, on our ship, or in our squadron, or in our community. In fact, prior to the year 1970, there were fewer than 40 African Americans who had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, which was established in 1845.”

Williams Sr. and Jr. are the first African American father and son to serve in their positions in the U.S. Navy. They also have 60 consecutive years of service between the two of them. 

“It  is a unique story, but as we tell our story, we realize that in general, we’re not special. We’re not any different from any military veteran,” said Williams Jr. 

Williams Sr. says he often reflects on his time in the military. He is still in contact with many Navy leaders and officials who he often talks with about the current state of the nation and the military. 

“We have a tendency not to remember history. The history of where we come from is very important to make sure that we don’t regress or repeat or make the same mistakes that were made in the past,” explained Williams Sr. 

The Williams family now has several officers and service members within their family continuing their military legacy and heritage. 

 It was especially gratifying when my grandson went to the Naval Academy and became a Marine [Corps] officer, which he is today. [He is] a Colonel in the Marine Corps…” 

The Williams’ say they thank their wives, Dora Ruth Williams and Donna Williams for their support and dedication throughout the years. 
“Military veterans and their families are essential examples of democracy. It’s important for all Americans to honor those who defend and serve our nation each and every day, and not just veterans day,” said Williams Jr. 

The Williams’ have written a book titled “Navigating the Seven Seas,” that details how they navigated through the ranks in the USN.

It also explains what they call the Seven C’s of leadership: Character, Competence, Courage, Commitment, Caring, Communicating, and Community. The book is considered essential reading for members of the Navy, and is currently being used in the curriculum of a naval leadership class.