Longtime civil rights organizer and later U.S. Ambassador, Franklin Hall Williams was born on October 22, 1917, in Flushing, New York. His mother died in 1919. Williams was raised by his maternal grandparents. He graduated from Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania in 1941. After serving in the United States Army, he completed Fordham University Law School in New York City in 1945, passing the New York State bar examination before receiving his degree.
Williams was appointed assistant special counsel to the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1945. He served as a special aide to Thurgood Marshall who headed the Legal Defense Fund. Marshall and Williams handled a number of death penalty cases in the South. Williams appeared before the Supreme Court and won reversals of death sentences for several African American youths who had been unjustly convicted of capital crimes.
After five years in the national office of the NAACP, Williams in 1950 was appointed regional director of the Association’s West Coast office located in San Francisco, California. He was responsible for legal, legislative, and membership matters in nine western states and the territories of Alaska, and Hawaii. Williams continually campaigned against racial discrimination in California and played a major role in civil rights reform. He won the first judgment in a major case involving school desegregation, fought successfully to remove restrictive covenants in real estate, and helped secure a state law that forbade employment discrimination.
California Attorney General Stanley Mosk appointed Williams Assistant Attorney General in 1959, the first African American to hold this position. Williams established the state’s first Constitutional Rights division in the Department of Justice.
In 1961, Sargent Shriver invited Williams to Washington to assist him in organizing the new Peace Corps in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He and Shriver