Under glaring camera lights and behind a small fortress of microphones, Assistant Education Secretary Michael L. Williams stood tall and cool Tuesday as he explained why he was reversing a landmark legal decision that had made the White House squirm.
Previously an obscure but well respected official, Williams, who is black, suddenly had become a political lightning rod over his decision last week to deny federal funds to colleges awarding scholarships based solely on race.
The 37-year-old attorney maintained that last week’s action was “supported by current federal law.” But he acknowledged that his move was “politically naive.”
Both critics and supporters of the original ruling said they were impressed by Williams’ demeanor in announcing the turnabout, which clearly was mandated by White House superiors. “It shows a strength of character,” said NAACP spokesman Jim Williams.
The original policy declaration upset many civil rights leaders who had been impressed by Williams and his record. “There was uniform disappointment at what happened last week,” said Ralph Neas, executive director of the 200-member Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
At his press conference, Williams fended off the suggestion that he was being used to represent the interests of “the white power structure” by attempting to keep blacks and other minorities from advancing.
“I haven’t been a lackey for anyone,” Williams said. “The position I took, I took because I thought it was right. If it happens to be a decision that is consistent with many other people, that just happens to be the way it is.”
When a black reporter said she did not understand how he could have arrived at his original decision, Williams replied more earnestly and softly: “There is a distinction between saying that a policy ought not be based upon race and saying that racial minorities ought not to get scholarships. We did not say the latter, we did not intend the latter. What we did say was the former--that scholarships ought not be based upon race.”
Williams, who wears lizard cowboy boots away from the office and is an avid collector of such things as baseball caps and dinner plates from each state in which he has litigated, is described by past associates as having a keen sense of humor and a distinct Texas charm.
Williams grew up in the West Texas oil town of Midland, where he was a childhood friend of President Bush’s son George. His wife, a pilot and mechanical engineer, attended a predominantly black university, as did Williams’ parents.
Williams, however, received a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Southern California, where he challenged the school to admit more blacks by weighing socioeconomic factors as well as test scores.
He also earned his law degree and a master’s in public administration at USC. Williams once was a Big Brother, and he currently volunteers as a reading tutor at a public elementary school in the District of Columbia.
“He’s one of the brightest guys I’ve known, (and) also one of the most community minded,” said Jane M. Wolf, executive director of the United Way in Midland, where he began practicing law.
Williams became known professionally for his aggressive prosecution of racial crimes as a young Justice Department lawyer during the Ronald Reagan Administration. From 1984 to 1988, he prosecuted an array of high-profile cases.
“He was one of our most aggressive and talented attorneys,” said Garry Kowalski, deputy chief of the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
Three years ago, Williams’s aggressiveness endangered his life when he successfully prosecuted four members of the White Patriot Party in North Carolina for conspiracy to illegally obtain weapons and operate a paramilitary organization.
Samuel T. Currin, a superior court judge for North Carolina, praised Williams for being part of a team that “completely shut down the Neo-Nazi movement in North Carolina.”