Williams, Roy Herdine (1942–2017)

By: Russell Stites

Type: Biography

Published: May 18, 2022

Updated: May 18, 2022

Roy Herdine Williams, Dallas civil rights activist and co-plaintiff in the Williams v. City of Dallas (1990) lawsuit, which led to the Dallas city council adopting a 14–1 election plan, was born on August 20, 1942, in Longview, Texas, to John Williams and Dorothy Mae (Abron) Williams. His father abandoned the family when Roy was young, and his mother latter married Charley Bell Long. He had two younger half-sisters and was educated in segregated schools. During his senior year at Longview Negro High School, Williams and several other students requested that the name of the school be changed to Mary C. Womack High School, in honor of the first woman to teach Black children in Longview. This request was quickly granted. At the urging of his pastor, local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter president S. Y. Nixon, Williams joined and became president of the Longview NAACP Youth Council in 1959. The following year, he helped lead a sit-in protest at the F. W. Woolworth store in Longview, shortly after the publicized sit-ins began at a local Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina. Williams was arrested. He participated in other sit-in demonstrations throughout Texas with the NAACP and attended the NAACP National Convention in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in the summer of 1960.

Williams attended Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado, on a basketball scholarship but dropped out. He moved to Denver and then to Washington, D. C., where he worked in the United States Patent and Trademark Office, before returning to Longview in February 1963 upon the death of his mother. Satisfied that his sisters were well-situated in Longview, he took up gambling and traveled across Texas. Williams had received two military deferments, the first to allow him to attend college and the second due to his job with the federal government. Having left both college and the patent office, these deferments were voided, and he was eventually drafted. The military was unable to contact him due to his frequent relocations. After learning that he was wanted for draft dodging, Williams presented himself to the Selective Service Office in Dallas and was inducted into the U. S. Army. He received his basic training at Fort Polk in Louisiana and advanced training at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. He was deployed to Würzburg, West Germany, and played on an army basketball team. After serving for two years in Europe, he returned to Texas. In 1969 Williams moved to New York City, where he continued to gamble heavily.

Williams returned to Dallas in the late 1970s and soon married a woman named Nancy. He stated that they faced discrimination by Dallas landowners because of their interracial relationship, which prompted the couple to move into a home in Richardson. They were married for twenty-seven years before divorcing. In the early 1980s Williams came to regret his years of gambling and indulgence. He adopted a newfound spirituality that involved periods of fasting and meditation, inspired by comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, whom Williams met in 1982. He became what he later described as a “spiritual counselor” in the Dallas area. Williams was incensed by the killing of Michael Frost, a young Black man, by Dallas police in November 1983 and became engaged in Dallas civil rights activism. He joined the Police and Paramedic Complaints Committee and served as treasurer and later as vice chair. He was involved in the anti-apartheid movement in Dallas along with fellow civil rights activist Marvin Crenshaw. Through her house cleaning business, Nancy Williams helped financially support her husband’s activism.

In 1975 District Judge Eldon Mahon handed down his ruling in Lipscomb v. Wise, a lawsuit against Mayor Wes Wise and the Dallas city council brought by Dallas civil rights activist Al Lipscomb. Mahon ruled that Dallas’s at-large election system for city council seats was unconstitutional as it diluted Black voting power. Dallas instituted a new system in which eight council members were elected from eight single-member districts while three members, including the mayor, were elected at-large. When the city council reapportioned these districts in the early 1980s, it did not increase the number of minority-majority districts to better reflect the growing proportion of minority voters. By the late 1980s Black and Latino residents made up nearly half of the city’s population but were only represented on three of the eleven council seats. In 1987 Williams unsuccessfully ran for an at-large seat on the city council. Crenshaw had also unsuccessfully sought an at-large seat and was urged by city council member Diane Ragsdale to file suit over the dilution of Black voting power under the 8–3 plan. Crenshaw asked Williams to join him on the lawsuit. Williams agreed after fasting and meditating (as he often did before making major decisions) for three days.

On May 18, 1988, Williams and Crenshaw sued the city of Dallas and initially sought to replace the 8–3 plan with an 11–0 plan. In August the Ledbetter Neighborhood Association, a group of West Dallas Latino residents, joined the suit. In 1989, before the suit was settled, Williams and Crenshaw again unsuccessfully ran for at-large seats. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in March 1990 and ordered a new election to be held using a replacement election plan. Dallas voters had already approved a 10–4–1 plan in August 1989, in which residents would be represented by two council members, one from one of ten districts and another from one of four quadrants, along with one mayor. This plan had failed to obtain preclearance from the U. S. Department of Justice because district and quadrant lines had yet to be drawn. In December 1990 the city council presented a 14–1 plan to Dallas voters. The referendum failed by a margin of 372 votes out of more than 90,000 votes cast, with 98 percent of Black voters supporting the plan. In March 1991 the city resubmitted the 10–4–1 plan, with district and quadrant lines, to the Department of Justice, which again denied preclearance. Meanwhile, redistricting efforts had been underway on the court-approved 14–1 plan, which the city would have been required to use in the court-mandated election if it could not obtain preclearance for 10–4–1. The city council was unable to come to a consensus on an alternative 10–4–1 map to submit and instead put forward a 14–1 plan, which the Department of Justice approved in August 1991. The process had been mired in controversy. Opponents of 14–1 complained that a democratically-approved plan had been thrown out in favor of a democratically-rejected one. Arguments over redistricting, particularly over whether there should be four or five Black-majority districts, were particularly heated. The first election held under the new election plan took place on November 5, 1991, and voters ratified the 14–1 plan.

Williams and Crenshaw again ran for city council in the 1991 election, but both lost. Williams also made unsuccessful bids for Dallas mayor in 1995, for council member in 1999 and 2001, and for state senator in 2002. He was affiliated with the Green party. He became a member of the City Planning Commission, in which capacity he helped establish the Tenth Street Historical District in 1993. He was removed by the council in 1994 over “unnecessarily disruptive” behavior during city planning meetings. Williams considered his removal to be politically motivated. He founded the Rainbow Bridge Youth Outreach Program, a nonprofit youth organization. He hosted and produced Razor’s Edge, a community access program and talk show for four years. He was part of the Dallas Multi-Ethnic Community Summit and the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Crime. With Kevin J. Shay, he co-wrote Time Change: An Alternate View of the History of Dallas (1991), which was later reprinted as “... and Justice for all!”: The Untold History of Dallas (1999).

Roy Herdine Williams died on March 18, 2017, at the Dallas VA Hospital/Medical Center due to complications from a stroke. He had received several awards for his civil rights activism, including those from the NAACP, the Texas Peace Officers Association, and the Greater Dallas Community Relations Commission. He was named one of D Magazine’s “50 People Who Made Dallas” in 1991. Following his death, he was honored in a House resolution by the Eighty-fifth Texas Legislature. His memorial service was held at the Hall of State Building at Fair Park. He was buried at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery in Dallas.

City of Dallas, The 14-1 Ruling: Suing for Single-Member Voting Districts (https://dallascityhall.com/government/citysecretary/archives/Pages/Archives_14-1home.aspx), accessed May 9, 2022. Dallas Examiner, April 10, 2017. Dallas Morning News, March 21, 2017. Minority Opportunity News, June 1994. Ruth P. Morgan, Governance by Decree: The Impact of the Voting Rights Act in Dallas (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2004). Oral History Interview with Roy Williams, by W. Marvin Dulaney and Alfred L. Roberts, October 6, 2011, Dallas, Texas, Documenting the History of the Civil Rights Movement in Dallas County, Texas Oral History Collection, UNT Libraries Special Collections, Portal to Texas History (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc1824457/), accessed May 10, 2022. “Roy H. Williams,” The Anti-Apartheid Movement in North Texas (https://blog.smu.edu/theanti-apartheidmovementinnorthtexas/biography/roy-h-williams/), accessed May 10, 2022. Roy H. Williams and Kevin J. Shay, “...and Justice for all!”: The Untold History of Dallas (2nd ed., Fort Worth: CGS Communications, 1999; 3rd ed., Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2017).

  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Activists
  • Civic Leaders
  • Civil Rights, Segregation, and Slavery
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Politics and Government
  • Civic and Community Leaders
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century
  • East Texas
  • East Central Texas
  • Longview
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Russell Stites, “Williams, Roy Herdine,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 14, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/williams-roy-herdine.

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May 18, 2022
May 18, 2022

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