Part of suit creating 14-1 council
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.