Additional Statementsby Senator Christopher A. Coons
Posted on 2013-03-07
COONS. Mr. President, today I wish to pay tribute Judge
Leonard L. Williams, a great Delawarean who passed away this past
weekend at the age of 78. Judge Williams was a respected attorney and
judge in Wilmington, as well as a pioneer for civil rights and racial
equality in our State. It is a fitting tribute the flags in Wilmington
were lowered to half-staff in his honor.
Judge Williams was a towering figure in Delaware history, but to my wife, Annie, and me, he was first and foremost a beloved neighbor. Judge Williams lived down the street from us on Woodlawn Avenue and was always quick with a honk and a wave when he drove by in his truck. We will miss his fellowship and his kindness.
When he passed away this weekend, I was in Alabama attending the Faith and Politics Institute's Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage led by Representative John Lewis. There is poetry in the timing, as Judge Williams' lifetime commitment to the civil rights movement continually reminded me that our country's great promise cannot be truly realized until full equality is achieved.
In his youth, Judge Williams worked as a clerk at a store on Market Street in Wilmington. One day he witnessed a robbery and needed to appear in municipal court to give his testimony. When he entered, he was told ``Coloreds'' could not sit on the left side of the room, that area was reserved for whites. Years later, Leonard Williams would become a judge, presiding over that very courtroom.
Judge Williams not only lived through the civil rights movement, he helped shape it.
He grew up in a large family in Wilmington and attended primary and secondary school before Brown v. Board of Education and the desegregation of the Wilmington public school system. Before 1950, black students could not attend the University of Delaware. A landmark civil rights lawsuit changed that and enabled Judge Williams to attend UD on a football scholarship. He became one of the first black students to graduate from the University of Delaware and entered law school at Georgetown University. When he was admitted to the Delaware Bar in 1959, he was only the fifth African American attorney in Delaware's history.
As a young lawyer, Judge Williams partnered with Louis Redding, Delaware's first black attorney and the very lawyer who argued Parker v. University of Delaware, the case which opened UD to black students. At the time, African Americans were denied access to restaurants, theaters, and other places of public accommodation in Delaware and around the country. One day in 1958, William Burton, a member of the Wilmington City Council, entered the Eagle Coffee Shoppe but was refused service. The restaurant, like many in Wilmington at the time, would not serve African-Americans. Because the restaurant leased space from the Wilmington Parking Authority, Burton filed suit in the Delaware Court of Chancery against the restaurant and the parking authority. Judge Williams and Louis Redding took the case, ultimately winning a judgment in the Supreme Court that private discrimination on State owned property violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Judge Williams' involvement in that case changed the course of Delaware history. Yet he never saw himself as a hero, just as somebody trying to serve his community. All of us will miss him deeply. We will keep Judge Williams' wife, Andrea, and his three children, Leonard Jr., Dena, and Garrett, in our prayers as we grieve.