NAACP Gathering Honors King Legacy

Judge Ann Williams Asks Equal Justice for All Citizens

By MANDY LOCKE

The only thing missing from Tuesday night's NAACP dinner was the guest of honor: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It was just the sort of gathering the civil rights pioneer would have loved, according to the keynote speaker, federal judge Ann Claire Williams.

"It's a dinner whose spirit represents what Dr. King dreamed about - people of different colors coming together on equal footing," Ms. Williams said after she stepped to the podium and scanned the crowd.

About 100 Vineyarders gathered around a spread of Lola's acclaimed southern-style cuisine to celebrate Dr. King's legacy. Over Caesar salads, acquaintances caught up and strangers exchanged their stories. By the time the pumpkin pie arrived, guests young and old, black and white, laughed and chatted with the ease of old friends.

But when Lola's owner Kathy Domitrovich stepped to the podium to introduce the keynote speaker, the audience fell silent.

"Tonight, the honorable Ann Claire Williams, United Sates court of appeals judge for the seventh circuit, will speak to you. To me, she's simply my girlfriend, my ‘ya-ya,' " Ms. Domitrovich said, using the Cajun term for sister.

The two women began their friendship in 1993, when a customer urged the restauranteur to entertain Ms. Williams and her family during the latter's visit to the Vineyard. Their friendship has grown over nine years of dinners, family vacations and family illnesses.

"How can one speak after an introduction like that?" Ms. Williams said after an embrace from Ms. Domitrovich. "It's great to be back on the Vineyard - a place where African-Americans have lived and prospered since the beginning."

Judge Williams knows all about prospering, and even more about the sacrifices of her own African-American ancestors, who never prospered despite their talents. The daughter of two college-educated parents, Ms. Williams said she watched her mother and father settle for standard trades when, despite degrees in education and psychology, they could find no work in their chosen fields.

"We must pass on the sacrifices [our parents] made," she said.

Early in her career, Ms. Williams taught in Detroit public schools while working full time to secure a master's degree in guidance and counseling from the University of Michigan. She returned to academia once again in 1972, to obtain a law degree from the University of Notre Dame.

Ms. Williams now sits on the bench for the same court in which she began her law career as a clerk for Judge Robert Sprecher of the seventh circuit.

Ms. Williams followed the trail of the earliest African-American pioneers in the judicial system in 1985 when President Ronald Reagan appointed her, at the age of 35, to the district court in Illinois - making her the first African-American woman appointed to the seventh circuit, and only the ninth African-American woman ever appointed to a federal judgeship. President Bill Clinton moved her up the ranks in 1999 with an appointment to the United States court of appeals in the seventh circuit.

Tall and slight in her red business suit, Ms. Williams deflected any praise of her accomplishments to the African-Americans who paved the way for her success. In fact, she helped spearhead the Just the Beginning Foundation - an organization whose mission is to recognize and celebrate strides made by African-Americans in the federal courts.

"Dr. King changed the face of the federal judiciary," she said. "He changed the laws of the land. He was a drum major for justice."

Judge Williams explained that from 1798 to 1945, there were no federal judges of color in America - even though the first African-American to gain entrance to a state bar had done so in 1844, some 100 years before. Today, out of 860 district and trial court judges, some 13 per cent are African-American.

Despite the great leaps, Ms. Williams explained, there is still much improvement to be made. Neither the first nor tenth circuit has had an African-American judge, nor have 13 states.

"In the last 42 years, we've made significant gains with the understanding of Martin Luther King, the NAACP and Howard Law School," Ms. Williams said.

Ms. Williams said she draws inspiration from trail blazers like William Hastie, who President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed to the district court for the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1937, even after Judge Hastie had quit his post at the White House in protest after unsuccessfully petitioning the president to integrate the armed forces.

She spoke of Constance Baker Motley, the first African-American woman on the federal bench, who in the mid-1960s was only able to join her white, male colleagues at a New York city social club because the management thought she attended the meetings to take notes.

"She did not get sidetracked by any ‘-isms': sexism or racism," she said.

Ms. Williams recounted how Thurgood Marshall, the first of only two African-American Supreme Court justices, survived harassment and threats throughout his tenure in the nation's highest court.

"He is Brown versus the Board of Education," she said, referring to the 1954 Supreme Court decision which mandated the desegregation of public schools. Marshall, at the time the chief counsel for the NAACP, argued the case before the court.

"Any of our accomplishments today pale in comparison," Ms. Williams said. "These judges are heroes. They were the best that America had to offer.

"They sought equal justice for the rich and poor, the young and old regardless of race, creed and religion," she added.

Ms. Williams ended her speech by reciting Langston Hughes' poem We Must Save the Dream for All. On the last refrain, the audience rose with a thunder of applause to thank her.