Williams, Eddie N. 1932–
Williams, Eddie N. 1932–
The influential National Journal political magazine once named Eddie N. Williams as one of the 150 people outside government who wield the greatest influence in Washington, D.C., and Williams has received a host of other accolades and tributes to his effectiveness. As the longtime leader of an African-American-oriented think tank, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Williams rarely made headlines and generally operated behind the scenes. Yet a quarter of a century of black political advances bore the mark of his activities. The uniqueness of Williams’s vision of black advancement was recognized in 1988 when he was awarded a Mac Arthur Foundation Fellowship, popularly termed a “genius grant.”
Eddie Nathan Williams was born in Memphis, Tennessee on August 18, 1932. His father Ed Williams, a musician who performed on the riverboats that plied the Mississippi, died when he was young, and Eddie Williams was raised mostly by his mother. His ticket out of the segregated South was an offer of admission to the University of Illinois, from which he graduated with a journalism degree in 1954. After college Williams first tried to put his journalism degree to work at the paper where he had worked parttime as an undergraduate, the Champaign-Urbana Courier, but he found that skin color closed the door to any further advancement there.
Instead, he took a job at the black-oriented Memphis Star-Times. Williams served for two years in the United States Army, rising to the rank of first lieutenant, and then took a reporting job at the Atlanta Daily World in 1957. He also enrolled in graduate courses in political science at Atlanta University, and in a 2002 speech to the local chapter of the Sigma Pi Phi fraternity, of which he eventually became the Grand Sire Archon or leader, he named Atlanta University political science chairman Samuel Dubois Cook, later president of Dillard University, as an important mentor.
Williams’s move to Washington came when he won an internship in the office of Representative James Roosevelt in 1959, and he moved up to a similar post with Minnesota senator and future U.S. vice president Hubert Humphrey the following year. Working as a
At a Glance…
Born on August 18, 1932, in Memphis, TN; married Jearline F. Reddick, 1981; three children. Education: University of Illinois, BS, 1954; graduate study, Atlanta University, 1957; graduate study, Howard University, 1958. Military Service: U.S. Army, rose to rank of first lieutenant, 1955-57.
Career: Atlanta Daily World newspaper, reporter, 1957-58; U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Washington, DC, staff assistant, 1959-60; U.S. Department of State, foreign service reserve officer, 1961-68; University of Chicago, vice president for public affairs, 1968-72; Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Washington, DC, president, 1972–.
Selected memberships: Past Grand Sire Archon, Sigma Pi Phi fraternity; American Academy of Arts & Sciences; National Academy of Public Administrators, Bretton Woods Commission; board of directors, Harrah’s Entertainment Corporation.
Selected awards: Congressional Black Caucus, Adam Clayton Powell Award, 1982; MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellows Award, 1988; Washingtonian of the Year award, 1991; National Black Caucus of State Legislators, Nation Builder Award, 1992; named to Ebony magazine 100 Most Influential Organization Leaders list, 2002.
Addresses: Office —President, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 1090 Vermont Ave. NW, Suite 1100, Washington, DC 20005.
staffer for the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Williams made a host of valuable friends and landed a job at the U.S. State Department, as a foreign service reserve officer, in 1961. He remained there for seven years.
A plum academic post as vice president for public affairs at the University of Chicago lured Williams away from government in 1969, never to return. He also served as director of the university’s Center for Policy Study from 1970 to 1972 and wrote editorial-page columns for the Chicago Sun-Times. Williams was, in short, well established in Chicago, and so he reacted skeptically at first when presented with the opportunity that became his life’s work.
The Joint Center for Political Studies was two years old in 1972 when it began a search for its second executive director. The Joint Center had been organized in the wake of the urban riots that swept the United States in the summer of 1968. It’s goal was to provide research and policy information for African-American politicians. “In the wake of the fires some people got together and said, ‘We’ve accomplished some things. We can’t let all this, literally, go up in smoke,’” Williams told Black Enterprise. Founded with an $860,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, the organization was short of cash just as the numbers of black elected officials in the country was growing sharply.
The eight-person staff at the Joint Center was stretched to the limit as new officeholders clamored for research and position papers that would help them set policy. The group’s search committee badgered Williams repeatedly, and he finally began to take the long view. “Maybe there is something I have learned that could enhance the social, economic, and political influence of African-Americans,” he recalled thinking, as quoted by Black Enterprise. Williams was aware that he didn’t fit the mold of the black leaders who had galvanized the civil rights movement in the 1960s. “I told the recruitment committee that if they were looking for a charismatic leader to run another black organization, that wasn’t me,” Williams told Michelle Singletary of the Washington Post. “But if they were looking for a leader that would build an organization with some sustainability and impact, I would consider that a challenge.”
Williams was hired and immediately set about building the Joint Center into the nation’s premier blackoriented research group. At first Williams spoke the activist language of the still fermenting civil rights movement. In a 1976 speech to the black caucus of the Tennessee General Assembly, Williams called for a mass citizens’ movement to influence the administration of President Jimmy Carter. Williams kept to the group’s original purpose of recruiting and training African-American candidates and officeholders, and he was widely viewed as influential force in the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988.
Under Williams’s tenure the group broadened its focus, becoming the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in 1990 and dividing its efforts equally between projects dealing with black political representation and those concerned with the impact of governmental policy on African-American communities. Williams recruited researchers and analysts, who published articles in the Joint Center’s monthly magazine, Focus, and issued longer studies with titles like The Declining Economic Status of Black Children. Gradually the Joint Center, which generally favored activist government but scrupulously avoided partisan political involvement, grew into an institution that played an important role in shaping policy.
“The Joint Center has earned a reputation for doing good, balanced work,” George Washington University professor Sonia Jarvis told Black Enterprise. “It might not always rock the boat when it’s released, but 10 years later you find yourself still using research they produced.” Williams founded a new Urban Policy Institute and continued to push for the election of black candidates who could implement the center’s ideas. Press people began to turn to Williams for his views on the black electorate.
After winning the Mac Arthur award in 1988, Williams was garlanded with honors, including the Washingtonian of the Year award (1991), the National Black Caucus of State Legislators’ Nation Builder award (1992), and several honorary doctorates. In 2002 he was named one of Ebony magazine’s 100 Most Influential Organization Leaders. Williams’s increasing influence resulted in his being named to several highprofile corporate boards, including that of the Harrah’s Entertainment Corporation.
Well past the usual retirement age, Williams stayed in the thick of the political fray in the early years of the new century. He continued to serve as president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and he penned journalistic opinion pieces on a variety of topics—something he had never given up even in the midst of his administrative duties. One widely circulated Williams essay decried halfhearted U.S. efforts to aid African countries, and in 2003 Williams wrote a lead Focus essay arguing for the continuation of affirmative action policies. One of the real movers and shakers in black America, Eddie N. Williams had not yet written the final chapter to his long career.
Hawkins, Walter, African American Biographies: Profiles of 558 Current Men and Women, McFarland and Company, 1992.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 21, 1996, p. G1.
Black Enterprise, April 1995, p. 96.
Boulé Journal, Fall 2002, p. 80.
Ebony, February 1996, p. 44; May 1999.
Jet, April 21, 2003, p. 10.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 7, 2000, p. A12.
Tri-State Defender (TN), November 26, 1977, p. 6.
Washington Post, September 10, 1982, p. A27; March 10, 1997, p. F9.
“Eddie Williams: Biography,” The History Makers, www.thehistorymakers.com (February 10, 2004).
“Eddie Williams: President,” Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, www.jointcenter.org/pressroom/experts/williams.html (February 10, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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