Players: Eddie N. Williams
Black Think Tank's President Retires After Three Decades
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2004; Page A21
The powers that be in the black political and civil rights community turned out as always for the annual dinner of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder, Jesse L. Jackson and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) were among the guests at the pricey head tables.
But on that April night, they yielded the spotlight to a man who had pretty much stayed the shadows for 32 years: Eddie N. Williams, president of the Joint Center, the nation's premier black think tank. Large chunks of time had been reserved solely for tributes to him.
Williams built the center virtually from scratch, starting when he took over in 1972. Now Washington policymakers, pollsters, campaign managers and politicians, particularly in the Congressional Black Caucus, rely on its research to gauge the pulse of black America.
Williams will leave the organization at the end of the year to retire at age 72. Elliott Hall, chairman of the Joint Center's board of directors, said Williams "will be extremely difficult to replace," and that a search for his successor was recently narrowed from 200 candidates to six.
When the board summoned Williams to the District three decades ago, at a time when outspoken black activists dominated the American stage, he let them know that he was not the most dynamic guy out there.
"I said to the board that if they were interested in another charismatic black leader, that was not me," Williams recalled. "But if they wanted someone with the commitment to build an institution, I would consider that to be a real challenge."
It was a dead-on description, Hall said. "Eddie Williams is not a flashy, charismatic personality. He let the Joint Center's work speak for him."
Bob Bates, a retired Mobil Corp. executive who was Williams' classmate and Omega Psi Phi fraternity brother, described him as cool.
"He's the ultimate calm manager we don't see very often," Bates said. "I've always admired Eddie's ability to look through an issue and come out with a measured decision."
Under Williams's watch, the think tank went from having a $400,000 budget to more than $2 million today, Hall said. He used part of those resources to start counting every black elected official in the United States and survey black people to define the black political agenda.
"Black people who ran for office during the time that I came on board often were natural leaders who didn't know much about governance," Williams said. The Joint Center's research helped educate them, he said.
"Definitely by losing him, we're losing someone who had vision, who put on paper research we've never had before, especially here in Washington," said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Meeks said the Joint Center's research helped him as an attorney in New York, long before he ran for office, and that its work helped give black people "legitimacy and a voice."
That voice has resonated during this campaign season. Democrats and Republicans have taken note of a 2002 Joint Center study by researcher David Bositis showing that younger black Americans are less likely to say they are Democrats.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies President Eddie N. Williams will retire from his post later this year.
(Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
Eddie N. Williams
Title: President, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Illinois.
Family: Married; three children.
Career highlights: Vice president, public affairs, University of Chicago; reserve officer, Foreign Service, Department of State; reporter, Chicago Daily Defender and Atlanta Daily World. Pastimes: Golf, poker, the Redskins.
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