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 traveled around the world and consulted with the heads of state in nine countries to prepare for the dispatch of American volunteers. Williams served as Peace Corps Regional Director for Africa for three years.
In 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson selected Williams to serve as U.S. representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, the first African American to receive this appointment. Two years later, President Johnson named him U.S. Ambassador to Ghana.
Returning from Ghana in 1968, Williams assumed directorship of the Urban Affairs Center at Columbia University in New York City and held the post for two years. He served as president of the Phelps-Stokes Fund from 1970 to 1990. Under his leadership, the organization promoted educational opportunities for Africans, African Americans, and Native Americans. Williams served on the boards of Consolidated Edison, the American Stock Exchange, and many other corporations. He was also a board member of several nonprofit groups, among them the Boys Choir of Harlem, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Foreign Policy Association.
Williams died at his home in New York City on May 20, 1990, at the age of 72. He was survived by his wife, the former Shirley Broyard, and two sons.