“My father abandoned my mother when I guess I was 2-3 years old,” he said in an interview in 2006. Walter and his sister, Catherine, were brought up by their mother in a project of social housing north of 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 age 10, shined shoes. At 13, he found menial work for a manufacturer of women’s hats. There he taught himself to use electric sewing machines, only to be fired when a seamstress complained to authorities that his job violated child labor laws.
An after-school job at a small brokerage house led him, in middle age, to buy a few stocks of Pepsi-Cola, which he was tracking in the financial pages of the Philadelphia Bulletin.
After graduating from high school, Mr. Williams made a brief stay with his father in Los Angeles, where he enrolled at Los Angeles City College. But after falling out with his father, he returned to Philadelphia and drove a cab to pay for night classes at Temple University. Through another driver, he met his future wife, Conchetta Taylor, known as Connie.
Mr. Williams was subsequently drafted into the military. At Fort Stewart in Georgia, he later recalls, he found that President Harry S. Truman’s 1948 Executive Order prohibiting discrimination in the military had done nothing to prevent black soldiers from being awarded the most menial jobs.
Mr. Williams was revealed to be a rebel soldier. Once, when ordered to paint a truck, he painted everything including the mirrors and tires, then explained his action to his senior officers in a simulated and haunting manner, using what he had called “my best Stepin Fetchit routine”.
Mr Williams was eventually sent to Korea, but before he left he and Ms Taylor got married.
His wife died in 2007. Along with their daughter, Mr. Williams is survived by a grandson.