Dallas civil rights activist Roy Williams died Saturday at the Dallas VA Medical Center. He was 74.
Williams was one of the two plaintiffs in a lawsuit that changed the makeup of the Dallas City Council – and the balance of political power in the city. In 2008, KERA talked with Williams and co-plaintiff Marvin Crenshaw about the years-long legal struggle that led to the current 14-1 voting plan in 1991. The plan helped open the door of city government to people of color.
In the late 1980s, African Americans and Hispanics made up half of the population in Dallas but filled only a quarter of the seats on the city council. Back then, police shootings and economic disparity added to the tension in Dallas as minority residents fought to have their voices heard.
Williams and Crenshaw blamed the divisiveness in Dallas partly on an unfair election system. They argued that the districts were too big, making it difficult for most minorities to raise enough money to campaign and compete.
“The at-large system was worse than ward politics in our opinion because a minority could never win because he needed financial support from the larger community,” Williams said.
Video: Watch the KERA Voter’s Voice program featuring Roy Williams
In the late 1980s, Williams and Crenshaw filed a federal voting rights lawsuit – and won. In 1991, the 14-1 system went into effect. Fourteen council members are elected from single-member districts. The mayor is elected at-large. Today, African-Americans or Latinos make up about 40 percent of the city council.
“Dallas was in the dark ages in how it dealt with its citizenry, its public safety policy, how it dealt with redlining, banks, and so on, so 14-1 changed the whole dynamics of Dallas,” Williams said.
Both Williams and Crenshaw failed several times to win elected office. But Williams said he still had a better chance of winning under 14-1 than he ever did as an at-large candidate under the previous voting system.
On Saturday, a statement from Crystal Victoria was published on Williams’ Facebook page. In the statement, Victoria says Williams’ legacy and influence in Dallas will live on. “From civil rights to spreading the message of equality and peace, Roy has led a full life of purpose. He was a trusted friend, mentor, activist, and brother.”
Funeral services for Williams are pending.