By Lillian Williams
The mayoral election of James E. Williams Sr. marked a political turning point for the city of East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1971. He was the first African-American mayor of this Southern Illinois municipality.
The April 7, 1971, New York Times headline read: “Negro Wins in E. St Louis.”
His achievement, along with many of the city’s challenges and goals, will be noted this month as the city commemorates the 100th anniversary of the horrific July 2, 1917, race riot there. The Missouri History Museum will tweet an hour-by-hour timeline of the riot using #ESTLRiot100. The museum estimates a total of 150 tweets.
What distinguished Williams’ election, too, was his political backing, or a remarkable lack thereof. He ran as an independent on a platform opposing the city’s entrenched political patronage system.
He served as mayor for one term until 1975, and later headed a reform slate that won three seats on the East St. Louis School Board in 1976. During his tenure as both Mayor and School Board President, he was known for integrity, accessibility, and unrelenting hard work.
A 1971 editorial in the Metro-East Journal newspaper captured his dedication to public service: “James Williams has been a public servant all of his adult life, but never before became involved in politics. He alone among the (mayoral) candidates has a college degree, and he also holds a law degree. Williams has administrative experience, intelligence and unquestioned integrity. Candidates of his quality are an exception in East St. Louis.”
A lawyer, Mayor Williams also opened the first Legal Aid Society of St. Clair County and served as its Executive Director, prior to his mayoral election. Previously he had operated a private legal practice in East St. Louis, and had worked in civil service at the Granite City Army Depot for many years. At the Depot, he rose through the ranks to become the Federal Compliance Officer and also a member of the Commanding Office Staff.
He grew up poor along the Kentucky-Ohio border, near Maysville, Kentucky. Mayor Williams received his bachelor’s degree from Wilberforce University in Ohio. He slept in a farmer’s barn for some of his years at Wilberforce. He later earned a master’s degree from Iowa State University.
He credited his wife, Lillian, for encouraging him to fulfill his lifelong dream of attending law school. He received his law degree in 1962 from St. Louis University Law School after attending night classes. Later he would become a founding member of the Metro-East Bar Association.
Mayor Williams was a member of Greater New Hope Baptist Church in East St. Louis, where his wife, a retired school teacher, is still a member. Early in his church membership there, he was a popular Sunday School teacher known for his exstensive knowledge of the Bible.
Mayor Williams died on Feb. 13, 1983, at the age of 61, after a lengthy illness.
In accomplishments while Williams served as Mayor, the state of Illinois approved the building of the $4.5 million state office complex in downtown East St. Louis. The building represented a physical and emotional boost to the city. Other accomplishments included the construction of the American Federation Teachers’ Hall, two new fire stations, the Norman Owens Housing Development, the Mary E. Brown Community Center, and the expansion of Union Bank.
But Mayor Williams considered his major accomplishment to be his marriage to Lillian Croom, whom he met at Wilberforce, and their five children.
No doubt Williams would have been proud of events marking the 1917 race riots in East St. Louis. He would often say to his children: “There is that intangible quality called inspiration which comes from a pride developed by heritage.” In other words, if you know your history, you’re more likely to plan for your future.
Editor’s note: Lillian Willliams, the author of this post, is the daughter of James E. Williams Sr.