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Claude Williams Papers

Identifier: LP000819

Scope and Content

Mr. Williams’ papers reflect his career as a minister and as a civil rights and labor advocate. Particularly well documented in the collection are the charges of communism and heresy brought against Mr. Williams, the activities of the PIAR, civil rights and segregation in the southern United States, and Mr. William's activities with the STFU.

Series Description: Series 1: Correspondence, 1929-1979 Correspondence between Williams and a large group of colleagues over a period of fifty years and concerning every aspect of Williams' life and work. Most of it is filed chronologically, some of it alphabetically, reflecting Williams own arrangement.

Series 2: Early Ministry Files, 1930-1940 Files concerning Williams' pastorate in Paris, Arkansas; his work with mine workers and the UMWA; his work with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union; the Socialist Party in Arkansas; his directorship of Commonwealth College; and other early ministry activities.

Series 3: People's Institute for Applied Religions, 1939-1977 Files of the PIAR, primarily in Detroit in the 1940s, including correspondence, bulletins, reports, charts. lectures and lessons, pamphlets, and materials from related programs and activities

Series 4: Heresy Trial, 1954 Materials related to the trial of Williams for heresy in Detroit include transcripts of the trial and appeal, clippings, and correspondence.

Series 5: Bible Way to Righteousness Manuscript drafts of "The Bible Way...", notes on the Bible and notes on religion in general are included in this series.

Series 6: General Files Files containing biographical materials, information related to Williams'religious, political, labor, and civil rights activities, some personal information, and the transcript of a memorial service held for Williams shortly after his death are in this series.

Series 7: Writings and Speeches These files contain articles, reports, and speeches written by Williams and several of his colleagues concerning a variety of topics and including a masters thesis about Williams' religious work.

Series 8: Clippings Clippings collected by Williams from the 1930s through the 1970s on a whole range of topics in which he was interested.


  • 1929 - 1979



Collection is open for research.


Refer to the Walter P. Reuther Library Rules for Use of Archival Materials. Restrictions: Researchers may encounter records of a sensitive nature – personnel files, case records and those involving investigations, legal and other private matters. Privacy laws and restrictions imposed by the Library prohibit the use of names and other personal information which might identify an individual, except with written permission from the Director and/or the donor.


Claude Clossie Williams was born in 1895 in Weakley County, Tennessee. His parents were Jess and Minnie Bell Williams, sharecroppers and devout members of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Williams' childhood was permeated by deep prejudices toward Yankees, Republicans, and blacks, and during adolescence he regularly attended revival meeting, "desperately seeking Jesus." In 1916 Williams enlisted in the army, becoming a drill sergeant and trainer of draftees, and re-enlisted in 1919. When he left the army in 1921, he entered Bethel College, a Cumberland Presbyterian School in Tennessee, to study for the ministry. There he met Joyce King, also a student, who he married in 1922. Williams' first pastorate, after graduating from Bethel in 1924, was a Presbyterian U.S.A. Church in Auburntown, Tennessee, where he stayed until 1930. During this time his religious philosophy underwent several changes. He was first inspired, about 1927, by Billy Sunday, and was "set on fire" to save the souls of his church full of sinners. Then he read Harry Emerson Fosdick's book, Modern Use of the Bible. He also attended summer seminars for three summers at Vanderbilt School of Religion, under Dr. Alva Taylor. By 1929 Williams new philosophy of religion as a social tool had led to his work with blacks in the community. In 1930 Williams was assigned to a Presbyterian Mission church in Paris, Arkansas, which was primarily a community of poor miners and sharecroppers and a small group of black families. He began to work with immediately and his congregation grew quickly. His efforts, especially when blacks and whites were together in meetings and services, shocked the church and town elders. One of his projects was an unsuccessful attempt to build a "Proletarian Church and Labor Temple." Williams was removed from Paris in 1934, and assigned to Fort Smith in 1935. In February of that year he was arrested with eight others who were participating in a relief workers strike. He was charged with barratry, fined one hundred dollars, and sentenced to ninety days in jail, which he served. After his release from prison, Williams moved to Little Rock, where he opened the New Era Training Schools for sharecroppers and other workers in 1936. He had been working closely with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU), which helped to raise funds and promote the schools. During 1936 he served as vice-president of the American Federation of Teachers. Williams became the director of Commonwealth College in Mena, Arkansas, in 1937 and spent the next two years there. He also remained a member of the board of the STFU. He was travelling to say a burial service for a black sharecropper when he and social worker Willie Sue Blagden were detained and flogged by six men, alledgedly cotton planters. In 1938 Commonwealth and Williams were accused of Communist activities. Williams was charged with attempting to "capture the STFU for the Communists," which resulted in his ouster from that union. He resigned from Commonwealth College in 1939. For the next year or so Williams was involved in various organizing and worker training activities. In 1940 in Memphis he founded the People's Institute for Applied Religions (PIAR), through which he hoped to organize people for labor and religious purposes. It was linked closely to the CIO, and its message was spread by a network of black and white preachers using visual aid charts and sermon outlines which presented in simple terms the "application of Bible texts to present problems." In the spring of 1941 new headquarters were established in Evansville, Indiana, with field workers all over the southern states. Williams visited Detroit that year, and was asked to return as the Detroit Presbytery's Industrial Chaplain. He moved there late in 1942 and brought the PIAR with him. He spent three years in Detroit working with laborers, unions, and the black community and was involved in the quelling of the 1943 race riot. Shortly thereafter he was again accused of Communist sympathies by Gerald L.K. Smith. The Detroit Presbytery backed Williams, and a campaign against Smith and his colleagues followed. The PIAR sponsored or was involved with a number of programs, many of them labor-related: the People's Congress of Applied Religion, Detroit Council of Applied Religion, Labor Sunday School, Mobilize for Brotherhood, and Youth Congress for Applied Religion. Williams returned to the south with his family in 1946, to live in Fungo Hollow, near Birmingham, Alabama. There he established a Bible training program and carried on the work of the PIAR until it was formally closed in 1948. About this time Williams began to formulate the "Bible Way of Righteousness," a philosophy based a religious underground revolutionary movement he felt had existed among the oppressed poor from the Old Testament to present times. He worked on this philosophy with friends and colleagues eventually drafting a manuscript which was never published. In 1953 Williams was again accused of being a Communist, this time by the House Un-American Activities Committee. As a result, in 1954 he was tried by the Detroit Presbytery, which found him innocent of that charge but guilty of heresy. He was deposed from the ministry, and was not reinstated until 1965. During the 1950s and 1960s, Williams' home at Fungo Hollow became a sort of headquarters for people who were involved in the civil rights movement, radical religious philosophies, or who were political leftists. Williams worked in drives to register black voters and other civil rights activities. He was supported by funds solicited by the Claude Williams Committee. remained active, corresponding with dozens of people and working to write "The Bible Way..." until his death on June 28, 1979. For further information, see Cedric Belfrage's A Faith to Free the People, published in 1944.


12 Linear Feet (24 MB)

Language of Materials



Claude Williams served as a minister in various congregations and was active in the labor and civil rights movements. Mr. Williams worked closely with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU), founded the New Era Training School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the People’s Institute for Applied Religion (PIAR), served as the national vice president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and as director of Commonwealth College.


Arranged in 8 series – Series 1 (Boxes 1-15), Series 2 (Boxes 16-17), Series 3 (Boxes 18-19), Series 4 (Box 20), Series 5 (Boxes 20-22), Series 6 (Boxes 22-23), Sereis 7 (Box 23) and Series 8 (Box 24). Folders in Series 1 and 2 are arranged chronologically, folders in Series 3-6 are arranged alphabetically, and folders in Series 8 are arranged by subject.


The papers of Claude C. Williams were placed in the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs in 1977 and 1979 by Mr. Williams.


Several PIAR posters and poster mock-ups, six original drawings, and fourteen photographs have been placed in the Archives Audiovisual collection. About a dozen magazines and about twenty-five pamphlets were placed in the Archives Library.

Processing History

Processed and finding aid written by Walter P. Reuther Library.
Guide to the Claude Williams Papers
Processed by Walter P. Reuther Library.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
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Repository Details

Part of the Walter P. Reuther Library Repository

5401 Cass Avenue
Detroit MI 48202 USA