Lance “Sweet Willie Wine” Watson’s decades-long fight for civil rights and social justice has ended. A generation symbol for “the freedom struggle,” he died expectedly on Saturday evening (March 25). He was 84.
Known for decades after the 1960s as Minister Suhkara A. Yahweh, he had been hospitalized for a couple of days so “doctors could check him out,” said his lifelong friend Deke Pope.
“We just went over on Saturday (March 25) to see how he was doing,” said Pope. “Minister Yahweh was feeling good, talking and laughing. It was great. We had a wonderful time. I left, knowing he would be discharged on Sunday and back at home.”
Minister Yahweh died only hours after saying “goodbye” to Pope.
Born Lance Watson on Aug. 19, 1938, Minister Yahweh was a native Memphian, who spent most of his formative years in the Orange Mound community.
Most notably, he became a highly visible member of “The Invaders,” a “black power” component in Memphis. The organization worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who came to the city to support sanitation workers on strike in 1968.
“Suhkara, more than us all, truly embraced the movement and the fight for racial equality,” said Calvin Taylor, a leader of The Invaders.
“His commitment and resolve gave our organization more credibility. Suhkara was a man of the people. There was always a genuine concern for the common man. This is the passing of an era.”
In recent years, he carried on that activism by frequently addressing the Memphis City Council about numerous civil rights, social justice, and community health concerns.
As Lance Watson, he began living with his aunt and uncle at the age of 4. At 16, he came back to live with his mother.
He attended Hamilton High School but stopped just short of graduation because of “circumstances and situations,” he would always say.
“Those of us of a certain age remember sock-hops,” said Pope. “Minister Yahweh and I had been hanging together since we were 11 years old. He was known at other high schools because he was such a good dancer.
“Other schools would call him to attend their sock hops too because he was so smooth on the dance floor. Those were the days.”
His post-high school years were troubled, rife with petty crime and stints of incarceration.
“In those days when I was younger, I was a shoplifter and a pickpocket,” he acknowledged during a 2019 taped interview at the Elaine Legacy Center in Elaine, Arkansas for the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program.
But during his final incarceration, “something was happening” to Lance Watson. He began reading Bible scripture, Mao, and the writings of several great thinkers.
The period was one of transformation and extraordinary self-discovery amid the percolating backdrop of marching and organizing in the South.
Years earlier, he had picked up the nickname “Willie Wine” because of the way he consumed wine, he detailed in the taped oral history.
“As I was going through transition in prison the last time … I had had my religious epiphany…. ‘I said what am I going to call myself?’
Recalling traveling preachers such as “Sweet Daddy Grace,” he settled up calling himself “Sweet Willie Wine. That’s how Sweet Willie Wine was born. … As I started to do those things that are positive, the name caught on….”
“It was evident something had happened,” said Pope.
Later, he transitioned to Suhkara A. Yahweh.
“He wanted his new name to reflect his evolved relationship with Yeshua – the One many call ‘Jesus,’” said Pope.
John Burl Smith, a co-founder of The Invaders, reflected upon the death of Minister Yahweh, who was also a lifelong friend.
“I knew Suhkara even before he became an Invader,” said Smith. “He was a great dancer. He had a paralyzed arm. On the dance floor, he would put it in his pocket and dance with the other arm out. He made it look cool.
“So other guys started doing it, too. We would go to different sock hops and dances at other high schools. And people started calling that dance, ‘The Willie Wine.’”
Smith brought Minister Yahweh into The Invaders because he felt the organization would give Yahweh purpose and direction.
“The Invaders came out of the Black Organizing Project,” said Smith. “Our work began focusing more on civil rights than just socializing. …. he embraced the fight for civil rights.
“The march to Little Rock and (his involvement with the Poor Peoples’ Campaign in Washington, D.C.,) were examples of his perseverance. … He became a folk hero. He was a champion of the people.”
As Yahweh’s “secretary,” Patricia Lee helped him keep documentation in order and she assisted in other efforts. On Saturday afternoon, she visited him at the hospital, bringing fish and Great Northern beans.
“He ate and visited with friends all afternoon,” said Lee. “He was doing so well that we felt sure doctors would be releasing him the next day — that was Sunday.
“But a little over an hour after I got home, I got a call from the hospital telling me to come back. I drove there as quickly as I could, but he had already passed when I got up there. I believe they said it was a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot.”
Lee said Yahweh had talked about “going home,” and he had prepared for his final arrangements.
“Everything has already been taken care of, and Minister Yahweh talked with Mr. Pope and I about his homegoing,” said Lee.
The visitation is set for April 7 from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Superior Funeral Home, 460 E. McLemore.
The celebration service will be on April 8 at 11 a.m. at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church, 492 E. McLemore.