Eddie N. Williams, the longtime president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that has been a major engine of research and policy analysis geared toward African American elected officials, died May 8 at a hospital in Bethesda, Md. He was 84.
The cause was complications from pneumonia, said his wife, Jearline Williams.
Mr. Williams came to the Joint Center in 1972 after earlier work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as a State Department protocol officer and as public affairs vice president at the University of Chicago. During his 32 years at the center, he built it into what is often called Washington’s leading African American political think tank.
“While many civil rights leaders are charismatic individuals, Eddie leveraged experts, data, solutions, and relationships to build a critical African American institution,” Spencer Overton, the Joint Center’s current president, said in an email to The Washington Post. “He influenced generations of African American elected officials, scholars, and journalists.”
The Joint Center for Political Studies, as it was originally known, was founded in 1970 by, among others, Louis E. Martin, an adviser to three presidents, and noted psychologist Kenneth B. Clark. The goal was to provide assistance to newly elected black officeholders in the wake of the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“In a real sense, the Joint Center for Political Studies became a shepherd for many of these newly elected black officials,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said in a short film about the center’s history. “They didn’t have role models . . . They needed someone to show them the ropes.”
The Joint Center defined its mission not so much as advocacy but as one of basic research and practical education within the political system. The low-key Mr. Williams was content to stand by quietly as well-known political figures, academics and civil rights leaders transformed his center’s ideas into public causes.
“I told the recruitment committee that if they were looking for a charismatic leader to run another black organization, that wasn’t me,” Mr. Williams told The Washington Post in 1997. “But if they were looking for a leader that would build an organization with some sustainability and impact, I would consider that a challenge.”
Over the years, the Joint Center has sponsored research by such well-known scholars such as John Hope Franklin, Mary Frances Berry, Ronald W. Walters, David J. Garrow and William Julius Wilson. Its onetime staff members and researchers now populate the upper reaches of politics, academic life and journalism throughout the country.
Among the issues addressed by the Joint Center have been voting rights, health care, economic issues, education and the effect of gun laws on black communities.
“The Joint Center isn’t a household name,” Mr. Williams told The Post in 1997, “but our contribution to the cause is producing information that will help make a difference in people’s lives.”
The Joint Center has helped develop the intellectual framework behind many issues championed by the Congressional Black Caucus, but it has never been officially aligned with a particular political party. Support for the center’s efforts came from such diverse sources as the Ford Foundation, members of the Coors brewing dynasty, labor unions, the Tobacco Institute and the national committees of the Democratic and Republican parties.
In 1990, the center’s 20th-
anniversary dinner was attended by Republican President George H.W. Bush and by Democrat L. Douglas Wilder, Virginia’s first elected African American governor.
“I don’t think you can be totally out of sync with black leadership,” Mr. Williams said in 1995. “But you can say, ‘Let us not get locked into democratic liberal ideology to the point that problems cannot be solved.’ ”
Eddie Nathan Williams was born Aug. 18, 1932, in Memphis. After the death of his father, a jazz pianist, he was raised by his mother, a hotel housekeeper.
Mr. Williams majored in journalism at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, from which he graduated in 1956. He served in the Army and worked at black newspapers in Memphis and Atlanta before becoming joining the office of Rep. James Roosevelt (D-Calif.) — the son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt — in 1959.
Later, Mr. Williams worked on the staff of Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.) and for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He worked for the State Department from 1961 to 1968 as one of the first African American protocol officers. He left a vice presidency at the University of Chicago to take over the leadership of the Joint Center.
In 1988, Mr. Williams received a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation.
His marriage to Sally E. Smart ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 35 years, the former Jearline Franklin of Washington; a son from his first marriage, Larry Williams of Columbia, Md.; a stepson, Terence Reddick of Washington; and two grandchildren. A daughter from his first marriage, Traci Lynne Williams, died in 2009.
From its inception, the Joint Center published an annual survey — the only one of its kind — tabulating the number of African American elected officials across the country. There were fewer than 500 in 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed. Five years later, there were 1,469.
“That signature work, vintage work, collecting the names of black elected officials, doing surveys,” Mr. Williams said in 1997, “is what I hope my legacy will be.”
By the time he stepped down as president of the Joint Center in 2004, more than 10,000 African Americans held elective office.