Williams is talking to eight-year-olds, early one hot summer morning at Mother Bethel AME Church, on South 6th Street. He’s brought his youngest daughter of three, Hope Olivia, who’s also eight, along for his talk to 15 African-American kids struggling in school.
He asks them, one by one, for their names, and what they want to be when they grow up.
There’s a budding FBI agent. And a basketball player.
“After your career in the NBA is over, what do you want to do?” Seth Williams asks.
“After your career in the NFL is over, what do you want to do?” Williams presses gently. No answer.
Williams launches into his message: Stay in school. There is one thing people who get arrested in Philadelphia share above all other things, he tells them: They didn’t finish high school. And then Seth Williams begins to tell them some of his own story:
“I went to Central High School, where I played football, ran track, was on the baseball team. I was on the bowling team—I had all these letters. After I graduated Central, I went to West Point. It was free! I went there, and I failed math, and failed chemistry.
“They told me, can’t stay here. It was embarrassing. I left, and went to another school, called Penn State. I graduated. My daughters are going to go to Penn State. In the car, when I say, We are! … they say Penn State!”
The district attorney is clearly enjoying himself. His goal, of course, is to help the kids understand overcoming failure by sharing his. And then he gives them something even more intimate:
“People think I’m up here wearing a suit, I have to be some rich guy. Not true—when I was born, my mother gave me up for adoption. I never met my mother or my father! I lived in an orphanage, where they have some nuns walking around changing diapers. And then two different foster homes. Then I was adopted by a nice family. My first name, people call me Seth, but my first name is really Rufus.”
The children laugh. Rufus the Doofus, he was called.
“See, you laugh, but I always liked my name because it was my father’s name. My father was named for an uncle of his who was a runaway slave. Rufus.”
Someone has a question. Her name is Carmen, and she asks quietly if he knew his real parents.
“My father was my best friend,” the D.A. tells her, meaning his adoptive dad. “He died in 2001. The other people”—his biological parents—“I don’t know anything about them.” Williams dismisses them with a sweep of his arm.
He grew up in West Philly’s Cobbs Creek, the only child in his middle-class adoptive family; his father was a teacher and his mother a secretary, Williams elaborates later that day. He was a skinny boy in a Phillies baseball cap, spending Saturdays doing errands with Rufus in his Volkswagen. Education was important, and in grade school at Friends Central he was a hands-on learner. Give him a magnifying glass, send him out onto the lawn, among the trees. He thrived there among mostly Jewish kids, though he still played basketball in Cobbs Creek—where he was good enough to fit in. Then on to Central. He could make it in either camp, white or black. Though he wasn’t quite either. So he worked hard in both worlds. A joiner, a schmoozer. A natural politician.
West Point was another story. What he told the children at Mother Bethel was true—chemistry and math got him—but there was a second problem.
Seth had a white girlfriend, back in Philly; other cadets had seen her picture—a very pretty white girl. One day a higher-ranking cadet demanded that Williams come to his dorm room.
“Williams,” the cadet intoned in private, “what would your father say if he could see you now?”
“Sir. He’d be proud.”
The cadet yanked a button off Seth’s shirt and threw it in his face. “Look at your uniform,” the cadet said. “You’re a disgrace.”
Another cadet joined in: “Williams, there is no place at West Point for niggers. Go back to Philly and bebop and break-dance and do whatever jigaboos do in Philly now.”
Seth was soon on a pay phone, calling his girlfriend and mother and father and telling them about the awful thing that had happened to him. Not long after, the commanding officer of his company wanted to see him: Was he the victim of a hazing incident? Were racial epithets used? It turned out Seth’s mother had immediately called West Point and demanded to speak to “the boss”—that would be the three-star general in charge. An investigation ensued. The name-calling cadets denied saying anything, but now Seth was tormented for getting them in trouble. And so he was not only failing subjects but failing the culture. Seth was a marked man.
From West Point on a Friday to Penn State Abington the following Monday, where Williams quickly joined the Black Caucus and became head of the political action committee. A year later, in 1987—now president of the Black Caucus—Seth would lead a march from State College to Harrisburg against Penn State investment in apartheid South Africa. He spoke on the steps of the Capitol.
But another Penn State incident was just as telling: The spring of that march to Harrisburg, Seth visited his parents with his PSU girlfriend. She told them about bruises on his arms and butt from a paddling he’d gotten at Alpha Phi Alpha, the fraternity he was pledging, the same chapter Seth’s father had started there just after coming home from World War II. His mother, coming to Seth’s rescue once again, made phone calls, and once again there was an investigation.
“I wish I had gotten the courage to stand up and say whatever,” he says now of the hazing, “but that’s not what happened.”
Williams moved on in another direction: He became president of Penn State’s student body. Next stop: Georgetown Law, and then the D.A.’s office in Philadelphia, under Lynne Abraham.
His story. He tells it one way to the 15 children at Bethel, and then in an entirely different way to nine young men in a small conference room on North Broad Street a little while later.
“You might be thinking, who is this guy, a bald, fat dude, what the hell does he know? I got it.” His audience laughs, and now Williams is talking fast and sounds a tad Southern: “I grew up in West Philly, and played basketball for the Cobb Street Comets, we were city champs. … ”
He’s got their attention. This group has entered Back on Track, a program Williams started for low-level drug offenders after learning about a similar one in San Francisco. It helps them get their GEDs, some job-skills training and so forth. He told the eight-year-olds that he wants to stop crime before it happens. With these guys, he’s trying to stop the bleeding.
All of them stare at Seth.
“Kids that played basketball with me called me a punk,” he tells them. ”Called me a pussy—I was going to school. They out there slinging the rock. They had girlfriends gettin’ nails done, buyin’ them stuff. I worked Sunday morning cutting grass. They thought that was corny.”
It’s impressive, Seth Williams’s charm and openness, his ability to relate. But spending his days like this has also generated a ubiquitous complaint: that Williams is so busy bouncing around the city, he is unengaged with his day job, that of actually running the district attorney’s office.