A powerful advocate for African Americans, Avon N. Williams Jr. became the leading African American lawyer in Tennessee in the protection and advancement of the rights of blacks in education, the workplace, criminal justice, and voting. Born in 1921 in Knoxville, the fourth of five children of Avon and Carrie Belle Williams, he received his education in the Knoxville public schools and graduated with an A.B. degree from Johnson C. Smith University in 1940. He obtained his law degree from Boston University in 1947 and a master’s degree in law from the same university a year later. After practicing briefly in Knoxville, he entered a partnership with prominent black Nashville attorney, Z. Alexander Looby (1953-69). In 1956 he married Joan Marie Bontemps, the daughter of poet and writer Arna Bontemps. They were the parents of two children, Avon N. III and Wendy Janette.
Williams became a cooperating attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1949 and began a long career in civil rights activism. He served as cocounsel in the first Tennessee public school desegregation suit, filed against Anderson County in 1950 (McSwain v. Board of Anderson County, Tennessee), and assisted in obtaining admission to the University of Tennessee graduate school for four black students (Gray v. University of Tennessee, 1951). In 1955 he filed the Nashville school desegregation case (Kelly v. Board of Education) and ultimately assisted in every school desegregation case statewide, except in Shelby County. Williams considered Geier v. Blanton (1972), which brought about the merger of the mostly white University of Tennessee at Nashville into the mostly black Tennessee State University, his most noteworthy case. This was the first time that a court in a higher education desegregation suit had ordered a black college to take over a white one. It was an important symbolic victory for blacks; the former University of Tennessee, Nashville, campus was later named the Avon Williams Jr. Campus of Tennessee State University in his honor.
Williams’s practice usually involved black litigants, including cases involving black teachers deprived of their jobs, a twelve-year-old boy charged with the rape of a white society woman, and numerous appeals stemming from the 1968 murder conviction of a black man tried before an all-white jury. Williams opposed the death penalty both in court and in the state Senate and vigorously challenged the racial bias in criminal proceedings. He questioned the racial makeup of grand juries, the use of voice identification in police lineups, and the failure to provide indigent defendants the right to free trial transcripts for use on appeal.
In 1962 Williams became active in Democratic politics, helping to create the Davidson County Independent Political Council and later the Tennessee Voters Council, which he chaired. From 1968 to 1990 he served as a state senator from Nashville. As senator, he championed funding for Meharry Medical College and Tennessee State University and funding for grade school guidance counselors. He cosponsored the law requiring public schools to teach African American history and a law forbidding discrimination on the basis of race by utility districts in laying water lines. He was the prime mover in the passage of a state civil rights law.
In 1989 Fisk University awarded him an LL.D. degree for his achievements on behalf of African Americans. Avon Williams died on August 29, 1994, and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Nashville.
Don H. Doyle, Nashville Since the 1920s (1985)