Based on information provided by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a July 29 Federal Page article incorrectly said that the center's annual budget is about $2 million. The current budget is $5.46 million. (Published 07/31/04).
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.
Although those same people still tend to cast ballots for Democrats -- if and when they vote -- the study encouraged Republicans to strive for young black voters in a way they never had before. Other polling organizations have since confirmed the Joint Center's findings.
Williams also created Focus magazine, which offers scholarly reports, particularly for policymakers, on issues affecting African Americans.
Before becoming president of the Joint Center, Williams graduated from the University of Illinois in 1955.
"We dated; Eddie liked pretty girls," Bates said. But more than anything, "we worked. We were waiters. Everything we served, we ate. That was our pay. We had another job for spending money."
They both joined the Army ROTC to help pay tuition. After graduating, Williams honored a two-year Army commitment at Fort Bliss, Tex., watching over Cold War-era missile silos.
In the late 1950s, Williams was a journalist in Chicago and Atlanta before coming to Washington, where he became the first black protocol officer at the State Department in 1961.
He said the job took him everywhere. "I saw a lot of places I had never seen," he said, including Brazil, Nigeria and the Sudan. It also took him to Knoxville, Tenn., very close to his home in Memphis, a segregated world.
A clerk at the Andrew Johnson Hotel said he would book a Nigerian prime minister but not his traveling companion, Williams. "We don't take American Negroes in this hotel," Williams recalled the man saying. "They took Africans because it was necessary. They didn't want to upset foreign relations."
But they upset Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who promised that the hotel would not get another dime from the federal government if it barred Williams. He got the room.
In 1968, after working for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.), Williams joined the University of Chicago, where he was vice president of public affairs. Four years later, Williams was lured to the Joint Center by his mentor, Louis E. Martin, the black White House aide who suggested that President Lyndon B. Johnson appoint Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.
Martin called, saying there was an opening at the two-year-old think tank, then known as the Joint Center for Political Studies.
"I was very intimidated by the job," Williams said. "I don't see myself as that kind of leader. I wasn't terribly involved in the civil rights movement."
But the more he thought about the people he would serve, the more he warmed to the idea.
"No black organization was looking at public policy then, not the [National] Urban League or the NAACP," Williams said. "That signature work, vintage work, collecting the names of black elected officials, doing surveys, is what I hope my legacy will be."