“My father deserted my mother when, I guess, I was 2 or 3 years old,” he said in an interview in 2006. Walter and his sister, Catherine, were raised by their mother in a public housing project in North Philadelphia.
In his youth Mr. Williams was an indifferent student, but he was always eager to earn money. Among other jobs, he picked blueberries, shoveled snow, washed dishes and, at 10, shined shoes. At 13, he found menial work for a women’s hat manufacturer. There he taught himself to use the electric sewing machines, only to be fired when a seamstress complained to the authorities that his employment violated child labor laws.
An after-school job at a small brokerage house led him, in his midteens, to buy a few shares of Pepsi-Cola stock, whose price he followed in the financial pages of The Philadelphia Bulletin.
After graduating from high school, Mr. Williams made a brief sojourn with his father to Los Angeles, where he enrolled in Los Angeles City College. But after a falling-out with his father, he moved back to Philadelphia and drove a taxi to pay for night classes at Temple University. Through another driver, he met his future wife, Conchetta Taylor, known as Connie.
Mr. Williams was later drafted into the Army. At Fort Stewart in Georgia, he later recalled, he discovered that President Harry S. Truman’s 1948 executive order banning discrimination in the armed forces had done nothing to prevent Black soldiers from being assigned the most menial jobs.
Mr. Williams proved a rebellious soldier. Once, when ordered to paint a truck, he painted all of it, including mirrors and tires, and then explained his action to his superior officers in a mock-obseqious manner, using what he called “my best Stepin Fetchit routine.”
Mr. Williams was eventually ordered to Korea, but before he shipped out, he and Ms. Taylor married.
His wife died in 2007. In addition to their daughter, Mr. Williams is survived by a grandson.