Mary Luana Williams is an American social activist and author. She is known for her inspirational activism with Sudanese refugees. A daughter of Black Panthers members, Williams grew up in the heart of the movement, in East Oakland, California. When she was two years old, her father was arrested and subsequently jailed for assaulting police officers. Her mother was unable to take care of her and her five siblings and gradually became physically abusive and alcoholic. Williams and some of her siblings were then assigned to Laurel Springs Children’s Camp, where she met actress Jane Fonda. In 1982, when she was about 15 years old, she started to live with Fonda and her then-husband social activist and politician Tom Hayden. The erstwhile couple raised her as one of their own children. Fonda’s third husband, media mogul Ted Turner, was also involved in Williams’ upbringing. A Pitzer graduate, she went on work extensively with Sudanese refugees.
Childhood & Early Life
Born on October 13, 1967, in California, Mary Williams was the fifth of six children of Randy and Mary Williams. Both of her biological parents were affiliated with Black Panthers in the Black Power civil rights movement. The family resided in East Oakland, California, where the epicentre of the movement was located. It was a turbulent time in US history. The country was engaged in a brutal war in Vietnam, while the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing at home. Race riots were taking place all over the country on a regular basis. Williams later referred to this era as “violent and frenzied”.
Her father, Randy, served as a captain within the Panthers militaristic hierarchy and was part of the Armed Citizens' Patrol. In April 1970, Randy and his associates attacked several police officers in an attempt to prevent the arrest of four black marijuana suspects. Three officers suffered various degrees of injuries before the Panthers fled the scene. The police chased them in thirty patrol cars while the Panthers attempted to thwart the pursuit by hurling Molotov cocktails. Randy was eventually arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison.
At the time of her father’s sentencing, Williams was four years old. In the absence of her husband, the responsibility of rearing their six children fell on her mother, who proved to be miserably unfit for the task. She physically abused her children while rapidly sinking into alcoholism. One of Williams’ siblings, Donna, escaped from home, and another, Deborah, became a drug addict and prostitute. Williams, along with some of her other siblings, were admitted to Laurel Springs Children’s Camp, which was established by Fonda in Santa Monica, California. After Williams met the renowned actress, she started harbouring acting aspirations.
At the age of 14, she gave an audition at the house of a theatre director. His name was David and he raped her. Her horrible ordeal continued for the following few weeks. He would drive to her house, take her from there, and later bring her back. This ultimately ended when school started again. Fonda came to know about the rape and subsequently had a lengthy conversation with Williams. She told Williams that she could come to live with her if she bettered her grades. According to Williams, this incentive revitalised her interest in education.
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In 1982, Mary Williams relocated to Fonda’s Santa Monica home, which the latter shared with her then-husband, Tom Hayden. While Williams had not been officially adopted by Fonda and Hayden, the notion of her residing at their home had the full support of Williams’ mother. She grew up there alongside Vanessa Vadim, Fonda’s daughter with French screenwriter Roger Vadim, and Fonda and Hayden’s only son, Troy Garity.
Fonda and Hayden divorced in 1990, and she subsequently married Ted Turner. Williams and Turner developed a strong bond over the years. She considers him as the true father figure in her life. She is also close to Turner’s other children from previous marriages. Despite the dissolution of Fonda and Turner’s marriage in 2001, he and Williams maintained the same relationship.
Education & Career
After earning her high school diploma from Santa Monica Community College, Mary Williams enrolled at Claremont-based liberal arts school, Pitzer College, from where she graduated with a degree in African American history.
While Williams never became an actress, she followed in her adoptive mother’s footsteps into her other passion, social activism. She travelled to Tanzania and Morocco to work there on various social causes and later obtained a master’s degree in public health at Boston University.
In the early days of her career, Williams was employed as a fundraiser at the International Rescue Committee in Atlanta and worked with Sudanese refugees. She later established the Lost Boys Foundation, an initiative that helps the Lost Boys of Sudan. In 2005, she published her children’s book ‘Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan’. ‘The Lost Daughter: A Memoir’, a book detailing her relationship with her two families, was published in 2013.
Mary Williams was engaged to be married once. However, she and her partner did not go through with the wedding.