Activist Roy Williams remembered

The Dallas Examiner

Roy H. Williams was a community leader who assisted in literally changing the faces at Dallas City Hall.

That is the impression associates and colleagues shared of the former U.S. Army veteran and founder of the community organization Rainbow Bridge Youth Outreach Program. The activist, author, mentor and friend to many, who aided in rearranging a more ethnically representative Dallas City Council, died March 18 at age 74.

Helen Giddings, state representative for District 109, released a statement in which she regarded Williams as someone who cared so much about politically fair minority engagement in his adopted city that he went to legal war in the late 1980s to change the way the body of the city council functioned.

“Roy Williams waged many important battles and achieved significant victories on behalf of the underserved. Perhaps most memorably was he and Marvin Crenshaw’s crusade for Dallas’ 14-1 single-member City Council,” she wrote.

At that time, the city council was an 8-3 system in which the mayor and two council positions were won through citywide elections. Many argued such diluting of power did not accurately represent the ethnicity or issues of specific sections of the city. Williams and Crenshaw took that argument to court, and in 1988, U.S District Judge Jerry Buckmeyer declared 8-3 illegal and approved the 14-1 concept, as reported in local newspapers and even Black Enterprise magazine in April 1991.

The lawsuit eventually established 14 separate council seats elected from specific districts, while the mayor was elected by a citywide vote. It was under this system that voters elected Ron Kirk, the first Black mayor of the city.

Facing off against the city council was not the only fight for justice on the activist’s radar. Giddings further wrote about his passion for justice at an international level.

“He came to educate me on the horrors of Apartheid in South Africa and asked for my leadership in changing the country’s course. Accompanied by Marvin Crenshaw, they took me to task for not being more active and vocal in the fight against Apartheid. I was somewhat embarrassed because they were so much more well-informed on the issues and what needed to be done,” she admitted. “That meeting with Roy was a turning point in my career and the beginning of my numerous works and collaboration with the people of South Africa. I will forever be grateful for Roy’s courage and intellect.”

Kevin Shay, who met Williams as a teen in 1986 and remained close to his role model, said activism started early for the civil leader originally from East Texas.

“Roy started working for civil rights as a teen. As president of the NAACP Youth Council in Longview, Texas, when he was 16, he helped lead a sit-in at a Longview Woolworth’s drugstore in 1960 a few days after a more highly-publicized sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina,” Shay wrote to The Dallas Examiner.

“He was frightened of being attacked by KKK members, retaliation against family members, even being lynched. But he stood up that day for his basic rights as a human being to be served at a counter. He and others were arrested; on the way to jail an officer kicked him while he was handcuffed.”

Shay said Williams’ pastor was able to free him from jail.

“Police warned him not to stage another sit-in. Roy didn’t listen. He couldn’t,” Shay explained. “His mission was larger than those officers could realize. Within a few months, thanks in no small part to the persistent sit-ins organized by Roy and others that Woolworth’s opened its counter to African Americans. It was just the beginning.”

When Shay spoke with The Dallas Examiner, he reflected on the character Williams had, which fired his drive for right in the face of wrong.

“He was real persistent, real committed to ‘liberty And Justice for All,’” he stated, referencing the title of the Dallas history book he and Williams authored in 1999. “It wasn’t just words when he said the Pledge of Allegiance; he wanted to live out those words.”

Even in the new millennium, Williams was a man who never stopped showing concern for his community. In 2013, when an 8-year-old Black child, D.J. Maiden, was shot in the face outside his Skillman-area apartment by Brian Cloninger, a White man already on probation, Williams was there to bring moral support to the family and to make certain the city council was fully aware of the situation. At one point during the case, he even pondered what direction the nation was heading.

“I never will forget Emmitt Till, what happened to him, but there seems to be a pattern developing across the country,” Williams said at that time as he considered recurring attacks on Black children across the nation. “There’s some mentality out there that we don’t understand how it translates into acts like this.”

Shay offered a glimpse of what his friend had experienced in a state split by segregation.

“He always kind of had a soft side for the underdog. He lived it,” he said. “The thing about him was, he came from more of a spiritual perspective. It wasn’t quite as much from a politician side – which worked on both – but he came from a different perspective, which allowed him to reach more people.”

He recalled that his friend smiled and laughed easily, too.

“He always found time for people, and he found time … to work on the issues,” Shay affirmed. “He knew how to reach people where they were, you know? He could relate to people, like my son, who wasn’t in to politics because he was 16 or 17 when he met him.”

Shay described how sports became a mutual reference point for the two to build upon.

“He was like a Renaissance man that way. He could really relate to people from a wide variety of perspectives.”

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