Prominent civil rights attorney Robert Williams, best known for representing the original plaintiffs in a school desegregation case in East Baton Rouge Parish that stretched on for half a century, died Monday.
Williams, who was 75, spent his last years in a nursing home.
Fellow attorney Gail Horne Ray first met Williams in the mid-70s when she was in law school. Later they often practiced together, and she still occupies the law office at 1822 N. Acadian Thruway that they shared.
She recalls that Williams came to the office less often after the East Baton Rouge school desegregation case finally settled in July 2003. In his final years, she said, he had difficulty speaking at times but was still alert.
“You could tell he understood what you were saying and he would laugh at jokes,” Ray said.
Williams grew up in Baton Rouge, one of several children of a Baptist preacher and a schoolteacher. His father, Rev. J.R. Williams, for years led the congregation at Elm Grove Baptist Church. Williams did a lot of public speaking as an attorney, but did not inherit his father’s preaching style.
“In a way, he was kind of shy,” Ray said. “But he was aggressive when it came to defending the rights of the poor and disadvantaged. He believed in fighting for justice.”
Williams graduated from McKinley High, got his bachelor’s degree from Grambling University and in 1967 earned a law degree from Southern University Law School.
Soon after, he enlisted and served two tours of duty in Vietnam in the U.S. Marine Corps, working as a military lawyer. In 1970, his profile was raised when he successfully defended a Marine private accused of murdering Vietnamese civilians. The private’s former platoon commander and an active participant in the defense was a lieutenant named Oliver North. North would was to later become a figure in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 80s.
Williams left the Marines in 1971 and returned to Baton Rouge. Like many black attorneys in those days, he had trouble getting work, so turned to civil rights and other lower paying work.
“Even a lot of black people were hesitant to hire a black lawyer,” Ray said.
He took over the school desegregation case in the early ‘70s. Filed in February 1956, Williams for years represented families of the original 37 children who brought the case. Federal courts ruled in their favor, finding East Baton Rouge Parish illegally operated separate white and black schools.
But it wasn’t until 1970 that East Baton Rouge Parish and most other Southern school districts assigned children of all races to their neighborhood schools. That did not mean schools were integrated, though. Lots of Baton Rouge schools remained almost all black or all white, and they were still often far apart in terms of the quality of instruction, materials and facilities.
Williams fought to force the school system to eliminate the many vestiges of the old dual white-black school systems, which was no easy task.
The federal judge who oversaw the case, E. Gordon West, famously disagreed with the Brown vs Board of Education decision and regularly ruled against Williams. But Williams at several turns was able to persuade the appellate court to overturn West, often appealing the same day West ruled.
“Bob a lot of times already had his appeal brief ready,” Ray said.
In 1978, the desegregation case shifted to U.S. District Judge John Parker who, in 1981, penned a far-reaching desegregation order that launched 15 years of cross-town busing in Baton Rouge.
Wildly unpopular in the white community and with lukewarm support among black Baton Rougeans, the 1981 busing order was a flashpoint for years. Critics blamed it for widespread white flight and some black flight. The school system went from almost 70,000 students at its peak in the late 70s to about 41,000 today. Over that time, the racial balance shifted from about 60 percent white-40 percent black to 74 percent black, 11 percent white and 10 percent Hispanic today.
For the next 22 years, Williams aggressively countered that it was not the order, or subsequent court orders, that caused the student exodus. Instead, he blamed the school system for repeatedly bungling the implementation of the court orders and failing to provide good education to all students.
"Students aren't leaving the school system because of busing — it's the educational quality," Williams told The Advocate in 1985.
Attorney Gideon Carter III joined Williams in the late 90s in representing the original plaintiffs. By then, Carter said, Williams could “see the writing on the wall” that the litigation was coming to an end and had asked Carter for help negotiating the best settlement possible.
Carter, who considers Williams a mentor, said the civil rights attorney had a photographic memory. He remembers asking Williams for help on a case and Williams immediately pointed Carter to an ancient legal article on the topic.
“He told me the date and the page of a bar journal that he hadn’t seen in 15 years,” Carter said.
Carter and Williams actively participated in developing the 2003 final settlement, but neither signed it, opting to withdraw as counsel right before the settlement was finalized.
“He didn’t feel like EBR had done all they needed to do to desegregate the schools system,” Carter said.
Ray said, “I think he felt he was able to do some good. I know he was disappointed towards the end. He did the best he could do.”
This story has been changed to correct Williams' age and to reflect that he enlisted in the military rather then entering after he was drafted.