Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 3, 1956, Williams enlisted in the U.S. Marines upon graduating high school in 1974. He took basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, where he was promoted to platoon guide. After basic training, he was sent to the Desert Warfare Training Center at Twenty-nine Palms, near Palm Springs, California.
While at Twenty-nine Palms, his superiors became impressed with his leadership skills, and he was recommended for, and accepted to, the Naval Academy Preparatory school at Newport, Rhode Island. He completed the one-year course, and was accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.
When he arrived at Annapolis on July 6, 1976, he was honorably discharged as a corporal from the marines, and enlisted into the navy as a midshipman. While at Annapolis, Williams studied Mandarin Chinese and graduated with a degree in general engineering and a minor in International Security Affairs. It was at Annapolis that Williams first began to shave his head. Upon his graduation in 1980, he became the first black enlisted marine to complete and graduate both the Academy Prep School and Annapolis.
Commissioned an ensign, he spent the next one and a half years in Guam as a cryptologic officer for naval intelligence, where he served at sea and ashore. In 1982 he was transferred to Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, where he studied the Russian language for one year. In 1983 he was transferred to Ft. Meade in Maryland, where he worked with the National Security Agency. What Williams did there is vague, due to the sensitive nature of intelligence work, but he performed various intelligence missions. He was offshore aboard ship during the invasion of Grenada.
After three years aboard submarines, Williams, now a full lieutenant, was made supervising cryptologic officer with the Naval Security Fleet Support Division at Ft. Meade. It was while counseling his crew that he discovered a gift for public speaking. In 1988, he began conducting informal counseling for the wives and families of the servicemen in his command. He was later asked to speak to a local group of kids in Kansas City, MO about the importance of leadership and how to overcome obstacles on the road to success -- thus beginning a three-year career in motivational speaking.
Williams traveled the country talking to more than three million teenagers nationwide and gave up his naval commission to pursue speaking full-time. He left the navy with the rank of lieutenant, and received the Navy Achievement Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, and the Navy Commendation Medal. In addition, he reached out to thousands of parents, educators and business leaders, encouraging them to work together to address youth issues, trends and to inspire youngsters to reach their highest potential. These efforts to reach out to the community eventually lead to the Montel Williams Show on television.