It was April 1968 and Baltimore was ablaze. Revered civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was dead, killed by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, and the city’s Black residents released their anger in a flood of looting, vandalism and fire.
Into that maelstrom, an unlikely hero stepped up to stem the tide of unrest—notorious drug kingpin Melvin Williams.
“Little Melvin (as he was best known) had talked to some of the guys to come together,” Clarence Mitchell recalled in an April 2008 AFRO article. “The hustlers of the day came from East Baltimore, they came from South Baltimore and they came from West Baltimore and they made appeals to the communities that they came from to stop the riots. The next day the riots had stopped.”
The incident would become another highpoint in the urban legend of Little Melvin, a saga that ended Dec. 3, when he died at the age of 73 at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Friends said he suffered from cancer, The Baltimore Sun reported.
Williams was known as the heroin king of Baltimore, who amassed a fortune while building a drug enterprise that stretched across West Baltimore in the 1960s. His rise to infamy inspired HBO’s “The Wire” and was chronicled in documentaries such as the BET series “American Gangster.”
“Melvin Williams is a Baltimore 20th century legend,” said the Rev. Frank Reid III, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Baltimore, on “American Gangster.”
Born in Baltimore’s City Hospital on Dec. 14, 1941, Williams was raised by his parents, a cab driver and nurse’s aide, on Madison Avenue. He attended Garnet Elementary School but dropped out of high school in the 11th grade.
By that time, the boy with a genius I.Q. had already proven to be a prodigy in the gambling dens that littered Pennsylvania Avenue during its hey-day, winning thousands from gang members and crime bosses by the time he was 12, according to several documentaries. He then transitioned to a full life of crime under the auspices of Jewish gangster Julius Salisbury.
By the time Williams was 15, he was already a millionaire, according to “Life in the Game,” a documentary on his life. In a 2012 video posted on YouTube, Williams claimed he had sold more than $1 billion worth of narcotics in his lifetime. And, at one time, his criminal organization was responsible for more than 25 percent of all murders in Baltimore, according to a 1987 newspaper series by David Simon, the creator of “The Wire.”
Williams was known for running a sophisticated enterprise. He himself cast a dapper figure. For example, for his 11th court appearance in his much delayed trial for drug and weapons charges stemming from a March 8, 1967 incident, the AFRO described Williams as wearing a “smartly tailored black summer suit and a rose-colored shirt and pink, beige, black and blue striped tie.”
Despite his smarts, however, he was not able to elude the law.
“I consider you a big fish in the nefarious traffic of slow death,” Criminal Court Judge Anselm Sodaro told Williams in a July 1968 court appearance, before sentencing him to 12 years in prison for possession of narcotics, selling heroin and possession of a firearm in the March 1967 incident.
At the time, Williams told the AFRO he was framed by a narcotics detective known for previously perjuring himself.
Baltimore police officer Edward Burns—who would later become a writer for “The Wire,”—was able to conduct a successful investigation against, Williams, however. According to a Dec. 1, 1984 AFRO article, Williams was arrested when federal and state law enforcement conducted a raid of his Park Avenue “fortress” and seized guns, $54,000 Bugatti car, $250,000 worth of diamonds, furs and other jewelry and almost $300,000 in cash. The drug kingpin spent several years in prison, and was released in 2003.
Williams emerged a different man after “finding God,” in prison, according to The Sun. “Sometime in my fifties I became aware that there was a God in charge, and not a Melvin,” he was cited as saying in a 2003 court appearance before U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis.
Several persons, including Rev. Reid whose church Williams attended, said the reformed criminal spent his later years counselling gang members and other young people about staying away from drugs and violence and otherwise tried to uplift his community.
Williams is survived by his wife, Mary Williams; and two daughters.
‘Little Melvin’ Hires High-Powered Team of Lawyers While in The Pen’ (May 20, 1968)
“‘Little Melvin’ Machine Gun Case Set for Sept. 9” (August 10, 1968)
Feds Get ‘Lil’ Melvin’s $54,000 car, $250,000 Worth of Diamonds and Furs’ (December 1, 1984)
He Could Get Put Away for 38 Years (January 1, 1985)