Eddie N. Williams, the son of a hotel housekeeper who as the head of the nation’s leading black think tank for more than three decades marshaled facts and figures to advocate the political and economic advancement of black people, died Monday in Bethesda, Md. He was 84.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, said his wife, Jearline Williams.
In 1972, Mr. Williams was recruited by two prominent black men, Kenneth B. Clark, the educator and psychologist, and Louis E. Martin, a former White House aide under Lyndon B. Johnson, to run what was then called the Joint Center for Political Studies.
The center had been established in Washington two years earlier to provide political and governmental expertise to the trailblazing black officials who had been elected since the 1965 Voting Rights Act was approved.
“Where white politicians relied on the clubhouse wisdom of their political parties, or the research of universities and venerable think tanks, black politicians found themselves adrift,” the journalist Juan Williams wrote in a 1995 history of the center.
Well before he retired in 2004, Eddie Williams had transformed a fledgling institution into an unrivaled source of research on the state of black America. Nonpartisan but liberal-leaning, it had also expanded its agenda to include issues like blacks in the military, migration to the suburbs, the state of the black family and the effect of foreign policy on black Americans.
Mr. Williams eventually changed the institution’s name to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, to reflect the important role that education, health care, income inequality and employment, in addition to voting rights, played in its mission.
“The question today is not whether we can ride on the front of the bus, but whether the bus comes to our communities and whether we have bus fare,” Mr. Williams wrote in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times in 1976. “The issue is no longer whether blacks have an equal opportunity to get a job, but whether there is a job to get.”
Mr. Williams, who broke ground himself during the Kennedy administration as the State Department’s first black protocol officer, was not a flashy presence. He left that to the candidates and elected officials for whom he supplied the statistical foundation to defend affirmative action in college admissions or challenge gerrymandered congressional and legislative districts.
“Eddie led the way from African-American activism to governance — from being outsiders to insiders,” said Spencer Overton, the center’s current president.
The Rev. Al Sharpton said that Mr. Williams’s “research and policy work was the basis for most black political and civil rights gains in the post-King, pre-Obama era.”
Eddie Nathan Williams was born Aug. 18, 1932, in Memphis to Edie Williams, a jazz pianist, who died when he was young, and the former Georgia Lee Barr. He was raised by his mother, a hotel maid.
After graduating in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he had majored in journalism, he worked for The Memphis Star-Times, a black-oriented newspaper; served in the Army and was discharged as a first lieutenant; and became a reporter for another black paper, The Atlanta Daily World.
After working for the State Department, he served on the staffs of three Capitol Hill Democrats, Representative James Roosevelt of California and Senators Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
He became director of the Center for Policy Study at the University of Chicago in 1968 and was later named its vice president for public affairs. He also wrote columns for The Chicago Sun-Times.
In 1988, he was awarded a coveted MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.
His first marriage, to Sally E. Smart, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, the former Jearline Franklin, he is survived by a son from his first marriage, Larry Williams; a stepson, Terrence Reddick; and two grandchildren. A daughter from his first marriage, Traci Lynne Williams, died in 2009.
Shortly after he joined the Joint Center for Political Studies in 1972, Mr. Williams told Jet magazine, “There are numerous instances in which minorities and the poor are treated like neglected rear wheels on this nation’s wagons and many occasions on which they have been admonished: ‘Thou shalt not squeak.’”
But their squeak became louder, he said, after the election of Ronald Reagan and other conservatives in 1980.
Black people, he told The Times in 1983, “were being ignored and felt their backs were against the wall.”
“Therefore,” he added, “they felt they had to come out and vote and be politically active. The alternative was to throw bricks.”
By the time Mr. Williams retired, his verdict was that voting had made a difference.
“I look at the glass as being more half-full than half-empty,” he told Crisis magazine in 2004.
By then, according to the center’s regular count, there were more than 10,000 black elected officials in the country, compared with only 500 when the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.
But as the center’s 2015 survey found, while black people comprised more than 13 percent of the population of the United States, they held about 10 percent of the seats in the House, 2 percent in the Senate about 9 percent in state legislatures and 6 percent on city councils.
Still, it was a very different world from the one in which Mr. Williams accompanied the Nigerian prime minister to Knoxville, Tenn., in 1961 as the State Department protocol officer and wound up on the front lines of integration at the Andrew Johnson Hotel, where a clerk said he would admit the dignitary but not Mr. Williams.
As he recounted the episode to The Washington Post in 2004, he recalled the hotel clerk saying, “‘We don’t take American Negroes in this hotel.’” He added: “They took Africans because it was necessary. They didn’t want to upset foreign relations.”
However, the clerk’s refusal upset Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Mr. Rusk vowed that the hotel would never play host to another guest from the federal government if it refused to accommodate Mr. Williams.
Mr. Williams got his room.
*Eddie Williams, the president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (JCPES), a think tank focused on African American issues, was born in Memphis, Tennessee (August 18).