M. J. M. Williams Shope was born in 1919 in the Letaba district of the northern Transvaal, he became a breadwinner for his family at an early age and received no formal schooling. He later completed matriculation and several university courses through private study. Successively a herd boy, farm worker, gold miner, and Railway and Harbours worker, he became involved in the African Laundry Workers' Union in the years after World War II. In 1952 he was elected its chairman, a position he held until 1963.
In 1954 he became acting chairman of the Transvaal Council of Non-European Trade Unions, and when the South African Congress of Trade Unions was formed, he became a member of its executive committee, eventually becoming its general secretary. Joining the African National Congress during the 1952 Defiance Campaign, he served as a branch chairman in Jabavu Township in Johannesburg. He was among the accused in the Treason Trial until December 1957 and was later detained for five months during the 1960 emergency. He left South Africa in the early 1960s and has continued to work with the ANC and in the trade union movement abroad.