OXFORD • Ole Miss lost one of its African-American athletics pioneers last Monday, but the memory of Ben Williams – and the lasting impact of those pioneers – lives on in the scholarship named for the All-American defensive tackle.
Williams, 65, died of complications from a stroke on Monday in Jackson.
Long before Williams’ death, he and others had worked to provide opportunities for black students – not only athletes – to attend Ole Miss.
Williams and James Reed became the school’s first black football players in 1972. Reed played on the freshman team that year, while Williams played with the varsity.
Gary Turner and Pete Robertson joined the football team for the 1973 season.
Coolidge Ball had become the school’s first black athlete when he enrolled and joined the basketball team for the 1970-71 season.
At a time when African-Americans stood out on campus those students drew close to one another, mentored one another and supported one another.
“Coolidge took me under his wing and treated me like I was his little brother,” Reed recalled.
Strong bonds were formed. The students felt compelled to help one another, but there was more than that. They had broken a barrier, they understood, and felt a responsibility to see that it was not reconstructed.
Those early efforts resulted first in the Minority Alumni Scholarship, the first fund established by the school’s African-American alumni.
It was renamed the Ben Williams Scholarship. Endowed and first awarded in 1992, the scholarship goes to a minority student who demonstrates leadership potential, scholastic ability and financial need.
“There are several instances where I know that Ben Williams and Gary Turner worked hand in hand to ensure that scholarship money was available for kids who otherwise probably wouldn’t have had a chance to go to school,” said Reed, who now resides in Jacksonville, North Carolina, after a career in federal law enforcement.
Turner, a Sulligent, Alabama, native, graduated from Ole Miss and also began a career in law enforcement. He’s retired from the West Point Police Department and now works in real estate n the city.
As college students Turner, Reed and others watched how alumni worked together to achieve common goals.
The students felt compelled to use their contacts and resources to help those in need.
Soon Turner’s efforts were recognized, and he began to receive referrals of students who needed help.
“I think one of the things you learn as a result of going to a university is you watch the alumni, how they network with one another, how they work hard to make the university better. In the real world those alumni connections are extremely important,” Turner said. “We just felt, ‘Hey, this is an opportunity to go out and utilize that connection and hopefully make a better life and opportunity for some young people that didn’t have the resources to do so.’”