Before he was a civil rights lawyer, world ambassador, national diplomat, and philanthropist, Franklin H. Williams ’45 was a student at Fordham Law. At the inaugural Alumni of Distinction ceremony, held in his honor on Feb. 26, a group of civil rights advocates discussed and praised the champion of racial equality whose impact on the legal world and greater society continues today.
“We’re so very proud to honor him tonight for leading the fight for civil rights, for serving his country with distinction and grace, and for paving the way for generations of Fordham lawyers to follow his example as they strive to become the type of principled leader that he was,” said Matthew Diller, dean of Fordham Law, during his welcoming address.
Williams represents the first honoree for the School’s new Alumni of Distinction exhibit, which commemorates Fordham Law graduates who have broken barriers in the legal profession. The event was celebrated in conjunction with Black History Month and presented in partnership with The Maloney Library and the Center on Race, Law & Justice.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, delivered opening remarks. She urged attendees to view the legacy of Williams and other civil rights leaders not as a static history but rather as an ongoing avenue toward justice that requires the work of the living.
“Those of us who pay attention to civil rights history in particular, you know after a while you start to look at the images of these extraordinary men and women through a kind of sepia lens,” said Ifill, stressing that Williams was a human and that all humans should trust in their own powers to combat social injustice. “It’s actually quite important for us to take a moment and look at people like Franklin Williams and stop pretending that these were super-people who were deposited from some other planet.”
Following Ifill’s remarks, panelists discussed Williams’s life and legacy. The panel was moderated by Robin A. Lenhardt, professor and faculty director of Fordham Law’s Center on Race, Law & Justice.
Gilbert King, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, addressed the oppositional though productive relationship between Williams and Thurgood Marshall, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice and founder of the NAACP LDF, where Williams worked. Not only opposites in style (Williams was refined; Marshall was notoriously bawdy), the two men also disagreed on case strategy: Williams advocated an aggressive approach, whereas Marshall, fearing civil rights setbacks, favored more conservative methods. This clash, however, encouraged the LDF’s success.
“You needed these great minds to come together and to sort of push each other, and that’s exactly what Thurgood Marshall had in Franklin Williams,” said King.
King was joined by panelists Walter C. Carrington, former U.S. ambassador to Senegal and Nigeria; Enid Gort, anthropologist and former director of the Phelps-Stokes Institute; Daniel A. Sharp, president emeritus of Columbia University’s American Assembly and former assistant to Williams and creator/director of the Peace Corps Staff Training Center; and Edna Wells Handy, executive vice president and chief compliance officer of the New York City Housing Authority and former executive director of the New York State Judicial Commission on Minorities.
Gort and Sharp shared their experiences working with Williams. Gort, who joined Williams at the Phelps-Stokes Fund, recounted his capacity to conjure many ideas, to build team trust, and to work long hours. She also discussed his identity as mixed-race. In addition to being descended from freed blacks, slaves, and Dutch and English immigrants, Williams also lived with his Native American great-grandmother until he was 12, gaining empathy for all races.
“He could always see another side,” said Gort.
Sharp, who assisted Williams in the Peace Corps—traveling the world with him and helping him negotiate five treaties—stressed the importance of adventure.
“Grab the creative opportunity that comes along that’s different from the plan you’ve made for yourself,” Sharp advised.
Carrington and Wells Handy, who also knew Williams, praised his legacy.
“He was the guy I wanted to become,” said Carrington, recounting his meeting Williams when he was still in law school. Wells Handy called him “a great man who needs to be a part of the American discussion and conversation.”
Following the panel, Williams’s poster of distinction was unveiled. His son, Franklin H. Williams Jr., expressed hope for change of “individual hearts and minds.”
Before the evening’s conclusion, alumna Brenda L. Gill ’95 and 3L Khasim K. Lockhart shared their perspectives.
“The battle isn’t over,” said Gill, who is partner at Burgher Gray Jaffe LLP, board member of the Fordham Law Alumni Association, and chair of Fordham Law’s Alumni Attorneys of Color Affinity Group.
Lockhart, who is president of Fordham Law’s Black Law Students Association and associate editor of the Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal, shared stories of his anxiety at Fordham Law. Constantly fearing he did not deserve a position at the School, Lockhart grew to accept the words of wisdom from one of his professors, Olivier Sylvain: It’s not a privilege for black students to attend the Law School; rather, it’s a privilege for the Law School to teach talented black students dedicated to social justice.
Photos by Dana Maxson.