James Debois Williams Jr., who as a journalist and national spokesman for the National Urban League and NAACP was a tireless advocate for civil rights, died of cancer Friday at Good Samaritan Hospital. The Northwest Baltimore resident was 70.
Mr. Williams "had been the spokesman for the two most important civil rights organizations in the country, and the uplifting of his people and prodding his country to live up to its democratic promises were the cornerstones of his life," said Moses Newson, a former reporter and editor for the Afro-American newspaper and a friend of Mr. Williams' for 40 years.
"He was a soothing voice who had great foresight. He understood that it was going to be a long, tough struggle, but his position was that we had to keep attacking and working at it. He really was an optimist," Mr. Newson said.
The gravel-voiced Mr. Williams served several stints at the Afro-American in his native Baltimore, beginning in 1953 as city editor. He was managing editor from 1959 to 1964 and an editor from 1994 until last year.
From 1967 to 1969, he was director of public affairs for Community Action Programs at the federal Office of Economic Opportunity. He was director of communications at the National Urban League from 1972 to 1985 and at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1986 to 1993.
He began his journalism career in 1950 as a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune and was city editor of the Carolinian in Raleigh, N.C., from 1951 to 1953.
Mr. Williams "came out of that era of powerful, dynamic men and women who worked with black newspapers and made civil rights a national issue," said the Rev. Benjamin Hooks, NAACP president from 1977 to 1993. He was a "talented and courageous writer who took risks. He was part of the vanguard that covered lynchings and other such stories under adverse conditions. It never fazed Jimmy. He did what had to be done."
Vernon Jordan, president of the National Urban League from 1972 to 1982, said, "Jimmy was a soldier in the army of equality early on. Journalism and public relations were his chief weapons."
In 1961, Mr. Williams authorized three Afro-American reporters to pose as African diplomats and try to get service in several restaurants on U.S. 40 that had refused to serve blacks, including diplomats, who were traveling between Washington and New York, in one case causing an international incident.
At no stop along the highway were the three "diplomats" refused service. They ended their day at Miller Brothers, a fashionable downtown Baltimore restaurant where the headwaiter seated and served them, fearing that he might embarrass the U.S. State Department and Maryland.
"President John F. Kennedy called and later said it was a 'neat trick,' and it eventually led to [Maryland] Gov. J. Millard Tawes' signing the Public Accommodations Act into law," said George W. Collins, a Baltimore media consultant who was one of the three reporters.
Mr. Williams was a confidant of and, since the mid-1980s, speech writer for Earl Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise magazine, who will deliver tonight in Kansas a speech written by Mr. Williams.
Mr. Graves said Mr. Williams "had in his head a history of who we [blacks] were but at the same time could talk the Internet and move forward," he said.
Mr. Williams was born in a segregated Baltimore that he described in a 1977 article in The Sun Magazine as being "a place where your options were limited."
He recalled growing up in the 1930s and 1940s and seeing his mother barred from trying on a hat in a downtown department store. Such slights "shaped and determined his life's work," he wrote.
Mr. Williams, who was divorced, was a 1940 graduate of Douglass High School. After serving in the Army during World War II, he earned a bachelor's degree from Temple University in 1948.
Services will be at 10 a.m. tomorrow at St. James Episcopal Church, 1020 W. Lafayette Ave.
He is survived by a son, Ricardo Williams of Baltimore; his mother, Lillian B. Williams of Baltimore; a brother, Robert B. Williams Sr. of Upper Marlboro; a sister, Jacqueline M. Ross of Baltimore; a nephew; a niece; and a granddaughter.
Pub Date: 10/29/97