Civil rights lawyer and Memphis businessman A. W. Willis Jr. was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on March 16, 1925. Willis received his B.A. from Talladega College in 1950 and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1953. He set a precedent (the first of many) by opening the first integrated law firm in Memphis in the mid-1950s. In 1961, when James Meredith applied for admission to the University of Mississippi, Willis was the attorney of record. He also served as a NAACP lawyer in the early 1960s during the battle to desegregate the Memphis city schools. In 1964 Willis became the first African American elected to the Tennessee General Assembly since the 1880s. Although he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Memphis in 1967, Willis was instrumental in the election of Harold Ford Sr. to the U.S. Congress in 1974.
Besides his legal work Willis was also concerned with housing issues. He helped found the Mutual Federal Savings and Loan in 1955 and promoted Shelby County’s Homebuyer’s Revolving Loan Fund for low and moderate income first-time buyers. He also worked to secure funding for the Tennessee Housing Development Agency and served on the Shelby County Housing Task Force.
Willis served on numerous city, state, and national committees and commissions including Tennessee’s first Human Rights Commission in 1965 and the National Civil Rights Museum Commission, which was instrumental in bringing that historic site to fruition. The Auction Avenue Bridge in Memphis was renamed the A. W. Willis Bridge in his honor. Willis died in Memphis in 1988.
David M. Tucker, Memphis Since Crump: Bossism, Blacks, and Civic Reform, 1948-1968 (1980)