Avon Williams Jr.

Politics & Government

Avon Williams Jr. made his mark on Tennessee as a lawyer, fighting for justice for people who were treated
unfairly by racial bias.

Williams was born in 1921 in Knoxville as the youngest of five children to Avon and Carrie Belle Williams. He earned a degree from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., in 1940 and his law degree from Boston University in 1947. The following year he earned a Master of Law degree from Boston University.

In 1949, Williams launched his distinguished career in civil rights activism as a cooperating attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. His practice often worked to challenge the racial discrimination of the era.

Williams was extremely active in school desegregation initiatives and served as co-counsel in the first Tennessee public school desegregation suit, which was filed against Anderson County in 1950. That same year, his case, Gray v. University of Tennessee, reached the U.S. Supreme Court and helped to clear the way for the admission of four black students at the University of Tennessee.

Later in his career, Williams became active in politics, helping create the Davidson County Independent Political Council, for which he served as president from 1962 through 1966, and the Tennessee Voters Council, which he chaired in 1966.

In 1969, Williams became the first African-American senator elected to the Tennessee General Assembly, where the Democrat continued to fight for equitable education for African-Americans.

In 1972, Williams became involved in a lawsuit, Geier v. Blanton, calling for the merger of Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee at Nashville, and he helped persuade the court that the two universities should be merged. This was the first time that a court in a higher education desegregation suit ordered a historically black college to overtake a predominately white college. In honor of his devotion to the civil rights cause, the downtown campus of Tennessee State University was named for him in 1986.

Williams, who served as a state senator through 1990, died in 1994.