Born in Rochester in New York State, Bill first saw Dr King at the march on Washington and later, just two days after the assassination of president John F Kennedy, he found himself working in Dr King’s office in Atlanta, Georgia.
It was the start of a heady phase in his life which included being jailed in Atlanta having been on a protest and working in a crucible where he shared a number of personal conversations with one of the greatest orators and campaigners of modern times.
That period continues to inform his worldview. “The United States is a country that believes that its violence is good violence,” Bill says. “They believe that violence sorts out problems. Dr King had a diametrically opposed view. He thought violence was the problem.”
Bill may have lived in Ireland since the early 1980s but he’s still aware of the faultlines in his native country, viewing with some optimism the opposition to gun violence by survivors of the Florida school shooting, and the tumult of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Having worked in Dr King’s office for six months and then continuing his campaigning for social change before leaving the US for Costa Rica in 1968, Bill’s belief in equality and in the non-violence preached by Dr King is unwavering.
It was very simple in my mind. Why can’t I go into a restaurant or a club or a hotel with a person of another race?
Faultlines were everywhere. He recalls joining a pool club in Louisville, Kentucky, and bringing some black friends along — “that caused ructions”.
“One of the things is you have to be very brave,” he says of non-violent action. “Some people think it’s a wimpy philosophy but people went to jail [defending it] and in Dr King’s case, gave up his life. He was a very heroic man.”
The civil rights leader, already one of the towering figures of 20th century America, was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.
James Earl Ray was the perpetrator, but Bill recalls conversations with Dr King in which he intimated that he could see his death coming.
The acclaimed speech he delivered the day before he was killed also seems extraordinarily prescient. Bill says there was “something transcendent” about him.
The conversations they shared were theological and philosophical. “He had an ability to put very complex ideas in very simple terms,” Bill says of his mentor.
“Some of the conversations I had with him are very precious to me.”
One conversation, when everyone had returned to the Atlanta office following a bomb scare, ended with Dr King telling Bill: “I expect to be killed soon.”
“You don’t forget things like that,” says Bill.
On arrival in Ireland some years later, Bill became an acclaimed cheesemaker, but he has now sold off that business and, with a few health concerns, he moved to Schull in West Cork in recent times. “I’m just happy that I can take care of myself,” he says.
Yesterday’s half-century commemoration of Dr King’s death was marked with some quiet reflection. “I have a few photographs — I might look at them,” he says.
“I am not a reminiscer too much.”
Yet for all that, his old boss is always there.
“Isn’t it great,” says Bill. “He haunts us all.”