Eddie N. Williams, Leader Of Washington's First Black Think Tank, Dies at 84

May 20, 2017
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we'd like to take a few minutes to remember an influential figure in political circles who was laid to rest today, Eddie Williams. His name might not resonate outside of those circles, but his work left an imprint on a generation of African-American politicians lawmakers and activists. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, a wave of African-Americans began to seek and win public office. Many were long on enthusiasm, but short on experience.

Enter Eddie Williams and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies which researched policy, but also offered training and guidance for newcomers. Eddie Williams ran the center for more than three decades and is widely credited with making the center the go-to resource for black-elected officials at every level.

DENNIS ARCHER: My thinking was influenced by the Joint Center and by the reports that they would give.

MARTIN: Dennis Archer is the former mayor of Detroit.

ARCHER: Everybody who wanted any kind of real numbers that they felt were accurate, everybody relied upon the Joint Center.

MARTIN: From voting patterns to income inequality to the state of the black family, research produced at the Joint Center found its way into congressional debates and Democratic and Republican policy platforms. His research was everywhere, but Eddie Williams himself avoided the spotlight.

RODERICK HARRISON: It wasn't about his getting recognized or people knowing what he was necessarily doing behind the scenes.

MARTIN: Roderick Harrison was the lead statistician at the Joint Center. He says Eddie Williams' quiet demeanor made him a great leader.

HARRISON: That was very much him, and I think that very much set a tone at the Joint Center that we don't need a lot of yelling. We don't need a lot of flashy stuff. Just do good solid work, keep coming and get work done that is meaningful to our constituencies.

MARTIN: The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies continues its work under the leadership of law professor and former Justice Department Official Spencer Overton.

SPENCER OVERTON: Today as the Joint Center tackles with challenges like the impact of automation on jobs in the African-American community when we focus on the lack of diversity among top staff on the Hill, we're guided by Eddie's model.

MARTIN: Eddie Williams died from complications of pneumonia earlier this month at the age of 84. Memorial services were held today at Howard University's Dunbarton Chapel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.