UPDATED June 13, 2017
Eddie Williams, who served as President of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies from 1972-2004, passed on Monday, May 8, 2017 at the age of 84. “On behalf of the Joint Center and our community of elected officials and policy experts who serve communities of color, I want to express our sorrow upon learning of the passing of Eddie N. Williams,” said Joint Center President Spencer Overton.
Williams was born August 18, 1932 in Memphis, Tennessee and graduated from the University of Illinois in 1955. After serving in the Army he worked as a reporter, as the first Black protocol officer at the State Department, and on the staffs of Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.). In 1968 he joined the University of Chicago as director of the Center for Policy Study, and a few months later he became vice president for public affairs. In 1972, Mr. Williams was recruited to lead the Joint Center. The organization had been founded just two years earlier to support the hundreds of new black elected officials who came into office in the aftermath of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Over the next three decades, Mr. Williams built the Joint Center into the epicenter of black political thought and research. He hosted black elected officials every four years to assemble policy priorities to share with presidential candidates and transition teams. Under the leadership of Williams, the Joint Center helped establish several organizations of black elected officials, built a Roster of over 10,000 Black Elected Officials, and helped establish the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. Williams also created Focus Magazine to tie together black elected officials, political activists, and scholars nationwide. The Joint Center became a full-fledged think tank with Eddie Williams at the helm. It commissioned and published regular surveys of black Americans, and produced various studies, reports, books, and events. Top scholars like John Hope Franklin, Mary Frances Berry, Kenneth Clark, Chris Edley, David Garrow, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Ron Walters, and William Julius Wilson worked with the Joint Center.
Professor Mary Frances Berry with Eddie Williams “Eddie Williams built an institution that helped a generation of black leaders move from activism into governance, and that informed and inspired a generation of scholars committed to using ideas to change real lives,” said Joint Center Board Chair Barbara Johnson. “We are grateful for Eddie Williams’ vision, leadership, and dedication. He leaves an amazing legacy as a giant who blazed new trails when it came to empowering black elected officials. As Maya Angelou said, ‘when great souls die . . . we can be. Be and be better. For they existed.’ Indeed a great soul has passed. The Joint Center will continue to honor his legacy through our recommitment to the great work he started.” “Eddie Williams is synonymous with the Joint Center,” said Joint Center President Spencer Overton. “When the Joint Center was going through tough times in 2014, we were all committed to saving and restoring the institution out of respect for all Eddie accomplished, and the goodwill and reputation the organization continues to enjoy due to his groundbreaking and visionary work. We also rebuilt the institution because we knew that the need within the African-American community that Eddie met for over three decades still existed. Not only were we motivated by Eddie’s legacy, but he was a close ally, supporter, and adviser in helping us preserve and restore the Joint Center. I’m still amazed at all Eddie did, and he continues to be my inspiration. His wife Jearline and his other family members and friends are in our thoughts and prayers.”
Joint Center celebrates Colin Powell “I had the good fortune to sit and visit with Eddie Williams about a month ago,” said Richard Clemmons, the Chief Operating Officer of the Joint Center. “We talked about how he approached problems, and he provided valuable insights that are relevant to our work now. I’m very blessed to have had the experience.” In 2015 the Joint Center awarded Williams its highest honor, The Louis E. Martin Great American Award. The award is named after Louis E. Martin (1912-1997), a principal founder of the Joint Center and the first chair of its Board. Martin was a Chicago Defender journalist and black newspaper publisher, an adviser to three presidents, and was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Other recipients of the award include Tom Perez (2015), Cory Booker (2014), Susan Rice (2013), Kasim Reed (2012), John Lewis (2012), Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. (2011), Dorothy Height (2010), James Clyburn (2009), Charles Rangel (2008), William Jefferson Clinton (2007), Muhammad Ali (2006), Vernon Jordan (2005), and Jimmy Carter(2004).
President George H. W. Bush with Eddie Williams Williams received several honorary doctorates and other accolades, including the Congressional Black Caucus Adam Clayton Powell Award (1982), the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (also known as the “Genius Grant”) (1988), the Washingtonian of the Year Award (1991), and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators Nation Builder Award (1992). He also served as the Grand Sire Archon of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity (the Boulé), the first Greek-letter fraternity to be founded by African-American men.
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan with Eddie Williams and Vice President Al Gore Williams is survived by his wife Jearline Williams, his son Larry Williams (Rangena Hotaki), his two grandchildren Samira and Rafiq Williams, and his stepson Terence A. Reddick.
Additional Resources on Eddie Williams Read obituaries on Eddie Williams in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Westside Gazette, The Philadelphia Tribune,and The Undefeated. Watch a 6-minute video clip reflecting upon the legacy of Eddie Williams on NewsOne Now. Listen to a 3-minute segment reflecting upon Eddie’s life moderated by NPR’s Michel Martin on All Things Considered describing the Joint Center built by Mr. Williams and featuring interviews with him.Read “The Joint Center: Portrait of a Black Think Tank,” a 35-page booklet on the history of the Joint Center written by Juan Williams detailing many of the achievements of Mr. Williams.Read a 2004 Washington Post story upon the retirement of Eddie Williams. Click on the following to watch any of Eddie’s 25 video appearances on C-Span
Reflections on the Legacy of Eddie Williams “Eddie Williams built the Joint Center into an essential information and advisory resource for black elected officials. The studies and policy recommendations he directed were relied upon by politicians, policy makers and the media. He engaged scholars directly in the work of the Center. Because we all respected him and his contributions so much we were willing to give the time. We knew that Joint center reports and recommendations would make an impact on the lives of African Americans. Eddie Williams will be remembered as an institution builder and a serious advocate with an engaging smile.
” Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History and Africana Studies University of Pennsylvania & Former member and Chair United States Commission on Civil Rights “Eddie was a mentor and a true friend. We will miss him more than words can express.
” President & CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation “I was sorry to learn of Eddie’s passing, and I extend my heartfelt sympathy. We are better off because of his commitment to smart public policy that promotes inclusion and shared growth, and we should all be grateful that he made it his life’s work.
“Former President Bill Clinton Click here to read President Clinton’s full statement. “Eddie was a Washington legend, and his stewardship of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies nurtured generations of leaders. His life was a gift to us all; indeed, our country is better for Eddie’s life and leadership, and I will always be grateful for his work to level the playing field in politics and advance black political thought.
” Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton Click here to read Secretary Clinton’s full statement. “You know Eddie Williams was one of those once in a lifetime guys. I was around when Eddie took over…At the time that Eddie came, the Joint Center was sort of you might say ‘hootin with owls’ and Eddie came in and turned it into a real think tank and we began to soar all across the country.” – U.S.Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn (D-SC)“Eddie Williams epitomized the qualities of leadership, devotion to equality, social and political action that have helped advance the African American community and the United States. Throughout his life he expanded the education and knowledge of politics and economics and their effects on our community.
” Grand Sire Archon of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity Wesley A. Coleman “My prayers and condolences go out to the family and friends of Eddie Williams, former president of the Joint Center. As the president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies for more than three decades, Mr. Williams was the eminent authority on black political thought. Activists and elected officials alike turned to Mr. Williams for his unparalleled depth of knowledge. Under his leadership, the Joint Center became an institution that inspired a generation. I had the pleasure of working with Eddie for many years as he led the Joint Center. We will miss Eddie greatly, but we take heart in the legacy he created that continues to empower African Americans and individuals across this nation.”
“Eddie Williams’ trailblazing leadership of the Joint Center paved the path for decades of thoughtful policy proposals and solutions to lift up communities of color. From voting rights to creating more ladders of economic opportunity to championing social justice, we are grateful for his rich contributions to public policy. His legacy will live on for decades to come.”
Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA)“Eddie Williams, the past President of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies from 1972 to 2004, made his transition Monday at age 84. His contribution to Black political life and growth was enormous. Our prayers and comfort go out to his wife Jearline and his son Larry.”
Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr. Click here to read Rev. Jackson’s full statement. “As President of the Joint Center, Mr. Williams’ dedication to advancing our Beloved Community was unparalleled. His contributions to the advancement of a generation of strong African American political leaders are far-reaching and truly inspiring. His passion and legacy is sure to live on in the hearts and minds of many, including myself, for ages to come.”
Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) Click here to read Congressman Lewis’s full statement. “Eddie taught me more about public policy than any one in DC. He also encouraged my activism. He understood the need for both the power of the streets and the sophistication of the suites of power.”- “The Black Eagle” Joe Madison“Over the course of his (Eddie’s) career–from his work in government to his time shepherding the development of the Joint Center–Eddie devoted his boundless passion, talent, and energy to broadening horizons and bringing communities of color all across our country into the democratic process. His efforts spanning decades have contributed to building a more diverse, inclusive body of government. And through his quiet yet visionary leadership, he steered our national conversaion from focusing not just on the assurance of equal rights and representation, but on the presence of equal economic opportunity.
“Former President Barack Obama Click here to read President Obama’s full statement. “For years, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies has been the leading think tank when it comes to issues affecting African Americans and Eddie Williams was the long-time leader of that…He spent three decades leading the Joint Center of course on so many different issues, informed to support new Black elected officials who came into office in the aftermath of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In 1972 Williams took the helm and served as the organization’s head till 2004. He is credited with building the Joint Center into an epicenter of black political though and research. Under his leadership the Joint Center developed a roster of more than 10,000 Black elected officials and was responsible for the development of several political organizations.” Host & Managing Editor of TV One’s NewsOne NowRoland Martin “The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and policy makers in Washington and beyond have benefited from the leadership Eddie Williams provided during his long and distinguished tenure as President of the Joint Center. He responsible for making the Center one of the leading think tanks in the US. His legacy endures today under the able young leaders he attracted to the Center.” Director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania Jim McGann “The CBC mourns the loss of Eddie N. Williams, a trailblazer for Black policymakers and experts. Because Mr. Williams dedicated his life to building organizations that served Black elected officials, these officials and others were able to better address the needs of Black families across the country. In addition to being a trailblazer in the area of politics and policy, Mr. Williams served his country in the U.S. Army, became the first Black protocol officer at the State Department, and worked as a reporter for Black newspapers. The CBC honors the life and legacy of Mr. Williams with deep respect and gratitude. He will be missed.”
Congressional Black Caucus Chair Congressman Cedric Richmond (D-LA) “We are saddened by the passing of Eddie Williams, former President of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. He built the Joint Center into an institution that politicians, researchers and journalists relied on for policy analysis, research and sound commentary. Like Dr. Ronald W. Walters, Eddie Williams was known for his work and reliability rather than his flash. He may not have been as well known as the politicians with whom he worked, but all the movers and shakers who were concerned about black politics knew him. His name was synonymously with the Joint Center where he served from 1972-2004. He developed a database of black elected officials and helped to build organizations that served elected officials and persons interested in politics and public policy. I will miss the quiet giant, but his legacy lives on in the work he started and the organization he built. We express our sincere condolences to his wife, Jearline, his sons and grandchildren as well as to the Joint Center family.
” Howard University Ronald W. Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center Director Elsie L. Scott, Ph.D. “Eddie Williams was an undeniable American hero. He shaped and established the first respected Black think tank/policy institute in and for Black America. His research and policy work was the basis for most black political and civil rights gains in the post King , pre Obama era. History would have been very different had we not had an Eddie Williams.” “Eddie Williams was a stalwart advocate of the interests of black folks during his time. Condolences to the Joint Center on losing one of its moving forces.”
–Ted Shaw, former of Director-Counsel and President of NAACP LDF
“I was saddened to learn of the passing of Eddie Williams. I met and worked with him soon after being elected in 1974 to the Georgia House of Representatives. He was instrumental in the founding and establishment of NBCSL in 1977. He was our main source for research, information and political studies. He was our rock. We could always depend on Eddie Williams. He was a dear friend. Eddie was a historic trailblazer and his legacy lives through organizations such as NBCSL. We thank Eddie Williams for his contributions and his inspiration as he assisted a generation of state elected officials in formulation of sound public policy. When NBCSL was formed there were nearly 90 state legislators and now we have 650 African Americans state legislators in 42 states. We owe a great deal of that progress to the efforts of Eddie Williams and the Joint Center.”
“We are saddened by the loss of the Joint Center’s past president, Eddie N. Williams. His decades of leadership solidified the Joint Center’s place as the premiere think tank supporting African American elected leaders. We are confident that his legacy will live on through the Joint Center’s continued excellent and bipartisan work. Our prayers are with his family.”
“Eddie Williams built a unique think tank with a dual mission. Its research shed light into the attitudes, opinions, and lives of black Americans and conditions in black communities. And it provided research and policy expertise to newly minted black elected officials around the country connecting them to insight and each other. But its work was not simply of value to black electeds; it was (and is) necessary reading for all the policymakers and influencers who cared about African Americans and the impact of policy and politics on them. The think tank world learned so much from Williams’ pioneering efforts. On behalf of his contemporaries and my colleagues at Urban today, I honor his work and his legacy.”
– Sarah Rosen Wartell, President, The Urban Institute
“As a member of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, I mourn the passing of Mr. Eddie N. Williams. He was a magnificent individual who realized the value of having a center to coordinate our messages nationwide and speak truth to power. We have lost a powerful and knowledgeable voice for equity and inclusion of African Americans. Mr. Williams certainly dealt within the structure of Government and provided relevant and strong conversations for the African American Community.”
– The Honorable Diane E. Watson, U.S. Congresswoman (ret.)
This page will be updated as memorial arrangements are announced and additional statements are released about the life of Eddie N. Williams.