For a 41-year-old, James Williams has checked off plenty of boxes.
He’s head litigator at his law firm, and was named one of the “Nation’s Top One Percent” by the National Association of Distinguished Counsel. He’s also been named one of the “Top 100 Trial Lawyers” by the American Trial Lawyers Association.
He won the respect of his judicial peers when, at the tender age of 35, he was unanimously appointed by the Louisiana Supreme Court to temporarily fill a vacancy on the Orleans Parish Civil District Court.
And now, Williams is the first member of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club to serve as king of the Washington, D.C., Mardi Gras.
The event is run by the Mystic Krewe of Louisianians, with U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond (who represents Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional district) serving as its chairman.
And the milestones keep coming.
“I think that it’s extra cool, especially because this is Zulu’s 100th year of incorporation,” said Williams, a graduate of Washington & Lee University’s law school who practices with Chehardy, Sherman, Williams, Murray, Recile, Stakelum & Hayes LLP.
“Certainly, we have a long way to go in this country as far as civil and equal rights, but what an amazing story, to know that 100 years ago Zulu was formed because Mardi Gras was segregated, and now 100 years later a Zulu member reigns as the king of the Washington, D.C., Mardi Gras club. I just think it’s fantastic.
“We in New Orleans take Mardi Gras very seriously, and that includes the royalty,” he continued. “It’s an opportunity for me and my family to play a part in bringing that which is good about New Orleans and Mardi Gras to the nation’s capital and put it on display. It’s nice to have something like this.”
Williams will enjoy a crazy week of parties, pomp and pageantry that starts Wednesday and includes the ball Saturday. He will be joined by Baton Rouge’s Anna Haspel Aronson, as the queen, and the king of Zulu himself, Jay Banks — as well his family, which includes wife, Elizabeth, and three children (ages 4, 9 and 12).
There are serious moments amid the parties. Williams is especially mindful of the annual tradition of laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
With a grandfather who served in the Navy in World War II, and a younger brother who was a Navy pilot during the Iraq war, Williams said, “We’ll all participate in that ceremony, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Williams appears to have a firm grasp on the notion of serving communities in and beyond New Orleans. He funds a range of scholarships and awards, including an $80,000 scholarship for one student at the Good Shepherd School, which educates underserved children in New Orleans. His sponsors a Teach for America volunteer.
He gained statewide recognition for his legal work that helped pave the way for Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson to become the first African-American chief justice after a protracted battle with another justice.
He gained national attention for representing Dorian Johnson, a witness in the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
While being the first Zulu king of the Washington Mardi Gras is largely symbolic, Williams still feels its historic nature.
When asked if President Barack Obama might pop in for the proceedings in what might be Obama’s last appearance as president, Williams expressed guarded optimism.
Richmond accompanied Obama on his visit to Baton Rouge and newly inaugurated Gov. John Bel Edwards.
“There’s a chance,” Williams said. “Other presidents have attended, including John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. It’ll be very interesting. People who come will just have to wait and see.”