Part of suit cre­at­ing 14-1 coun­cil

The Dallas Morning News - - OBITUARIES - By JOE SIMNACHER Staff Writer jsim­nacher@dal­las­ Twit­ter: @JoeSim­nacher

Roy H. Wil­liams was a teenager when he started his work as a life­long ad­vo­cate for civil rights by protest­ing seg­re­gated lunch coun­ters and bus sta­tions across East Texas.

But his big­gest im­pact came as an ac­tivist in Dal­las, where he and Marvin Cren­shaw were coplain­tiffs in the land­mark 1988 fed­eral law­suit that led to Dal­las’ 14-1 sys­tem for elect­ing City Coun­cil mem­bers.

Be­fore the law­suit, no Dal­las mi­nor­ity had been elected city­wide to the coun­cil. The new sys­tem, in which only the mayor is elected at large and all oth­ers are voted in by district, quickly re­sulted in the elec­tion of more mi­nor­ity coun­cil mem­bers.

Wil­liams, 74, died Satur­day of com­pli­ca­tions from a stroke at the Dal­las VA Med­i­cal Cen­ter.

Ser­vices are pend­ing. Mayor Mike Rawl­ings plans to call for a mo­ment of si­lence hon­or­ing Wil­liams at Wed­nes­day’s coun­cil meet­ing.

Wil­liams was a spir­i­tual man com­mit­ted to change, said long­time friend and fel­low Dal­las ac­tivist Diane Rags­dale.

“He rec­og­nized it was some­thing he was called to do,” Rags­dale said. “God com­pelled him to work for change.”

Wil­liams was born in Longview, where he joined the Rev. S.Y. Nixon of Jerusalem Bap­tist Church in protest­ing the seg­re­ga­tion of the lunch counter at the Wool­worth store.

“You could go in there and buy clothes, but you couldn’t sit at the diner in the store,” said Wil­liams’ sis­ter, Edith Wedge­worth of Longview.

As a child, Wil­liams was out­spo­ken and an ex­cel­lent stu­dent.

“He was one of those peo­ple who didn’t have to study for tests,” Wedge­worth said. “He loved his fam­ily, and he was al­ways fight­ing for equal rights for peo­ple. He’s al­ways done that, from a young kid in high school, and he’s never stopped.”

In 1959, Wil­liams be­came pres­i­dent of the Longview NAACP Youth Coun­cil.

He grad­u­ated from high school in Longview and at­tended North­east­ern Ju­nior Col­lege, now North­east­ern Col­lege, in Ster­ling, Colo. He served in the Army in Ger­many and re­turned to Texas. He lived in New York for sev­eral years be­fore re­turn­ing to Dal­las in the 1970s, his sis­ter said.

Wil­liams be­gan work­ing with Rags­dale and other Dal­las ac­tivists in the 1980s on is­sues in­clud­ing po­lice mis­con­duct, apartheid, and mi­nor­ity rep­re­sen­ta­tion on the City Coun­cil.

“He was very at­ten­tive and very com­mit­ted to pro­gres­sive change,” Rags­dale said.

Wil­liams was an avid reader and came to meet­ings pre­pared.

“When I met him for lunch, din­ner or what­ever, he would al­ways be read­ing,” Rags­dale said.

Wil­liams fre­quently ad­dressed the coun­cil. In 1983, he joined the Po­lice and Para­medic Com­plaints Com­mit­tee, on which he was trea­surer be­fore be­ing named vice chair­man.

He was a lead­ing ad­vo­cate of an anti-apartheid mea­sure in­tended to sever Dal­las’ ties with com­pa­nies do­ing busi­ness in South Africa.

Af­ter months of de­bate, the coun­cil ap­proved an or­di­nance ask­ing trustees of city re­tire­ment funds not to in­vest in com­pa­nies that do busi­ness in South Africa or the Soviet Union.

In 1987, Wil­liams made an un­suc­cess­ful bid for the coun­cil in a four-way race for the at-large seat held by Jerry Rucker, then the District 9 in­cum­bent. At the time, Wil­liams said one of the ob­sta­cles he faced was con­vinc­ing vot­ers that he wanted to rep­re­sent all of Dal­las, not just its mi­nor­ity com­mu­nity.

The Wil­liams-Cren­shaw law­suit was joined by other plain­tiffs and worked its way through sev­eral com­pro­mises. Dal­las vot­ers re­jected the 14-1 sys­tem in 1990. In March 1990, U.S. District Judge Jerry Buch­meyer struck down Dal­las’ 8-3 sys­tem, rul­ing that elect­ing three seats on a city­wide ba­sis wa­tered down mi­nor­ity vot­ing strength.

The Jus­tice Depart­ment ap­proved a 14-1 plan, and the first elec­tion un­der the new bound­aries was held on Nov. 5, 1991.

Wil­liams’ work to help oth­ers in­cluded his found­ing and lead­er­ship of Rain­bow Bridge Inc., a non­profit youth or­ga­ni­za­tion.

He con­tin­ued to pro­mote eq­uity and fair­ness in a va­ri­ety of ways, in­clud­ing op­po­si­tion of a strong-mayor pro­posal in 2005.

“Sim­ply that you might change the struc­ture does not mean the is­sues have been re­solved,” Rags­dale said. “The struc­ture sim­ply helps you pro­mote bet­ter pub­lic pol­icy.”

Wil­liams is sur­vived by his sis­ter.

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