Joe Williams, the first African-American elected to the Fresno City Council, and who in the 1970s led the city’s antipoverty work, died Wednesday morning. He was 79.
Mr. Williams, who Fresno leaders describe as a role model and someone who deeply cared for his community, was first elected to the council in 1977 and served two four-year terms, representing the area of northeast Fresno near Hoover High School. He led the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission for 23 years in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s.
In a campaign statement for his bid for City Council 40 years ago, Mr. Williams said he believed in a cooperative form of government … “one of which the elected official truly listens to the people.”
Joe Heath, who became a friend and workmate of Mr. Williams 48 years ago, said Mr. Williams had a busy life in public service. Besides his role on the City Council and the commission, over the years he served on the boards of directors for Community Medical Centers and Premier Valley Bank, where he was a founding member.
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Until his death Mr. Williams was CEO of Richard Heath and Associates, an energy-efficiency company, Heath said. “He was just beloved by staff.”
He was just a very caring human being and wanted to see progress made for everyone in Fresno.
Mary Curry, remembering Joe Williams
Heath said that in the 1980s he and Mr. Williams “were working together with the state legislature to get the Public Utilities Commission and California’s major utilities on establishing programs for low-income households to save energy.”
Karen Humphrey, who served on the City Council with Mr. Williams for four years before becoming Fresno’s mayor, said Mr. Williams’ voice will be missed – especially in the African-American community.
“I am a firm believer in role models,” Humphrey said. “Seeing someone who’s like you or your mom or your dad on that council is important. Who knows how many young black men and women did what they did because they saw Joe up there?”
Humphrey, who served eight years on the council and four as mayor, said as she was considering whether to run, Mr. Williams gave her some advice that shaped her political life.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to know what you feel in your heart and your gut. And if you know something’s right, you need to do it,’ ” Humphrey said. “That can be hard to do with political pressures, but I always felt like he did it.”
She continued: “It was real human wisdom – not just political wisdom.”
Mr. Williams faced overt racism during his bid for re-election to the council, Humphrey said, but he rose above it.
“He made the case that he would be a good council member for all the people in his district, and it was gratifying that he won,” she said.
Peters Award winner
Mr. Williams moved to Fresno when he was 9 and graduated from Edison High School, Fresno City College and Fresno State. In 2010, he received the Leon S. Peters Award – the Fresno Chamber of Commerce’s top honor for long-term service to the community. He was also named one of the 100 stars for Fresno City College’s centennial celebration that same year.
In a Jan.14, 1973, interview with The Bee, Mr. Williams spoke of his role as the chief steward of the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission and of the War on Poverty. He became the agency’s fourth executive director in 1970 and was the first African-American to lead the agency.
It was a war against poverty that Williams personally knew, The Bee reported. Mr. Williams’ family migrated from Mississippi to California in 1947 and worked in the fields. Joe, his mother and his stepfather worked 12 hours a day during the summer picking grapes and cotton. In the winter, Joe would work three or four hours a day after school pitching hay to help augment the annual family income of $2,200. His stepfather often had to hunt and fish for food, The Bee said.
“I guess we were poor,” Mr. Williams told The Bee. “But we didn’t know we were poor because everyone around us was the same way.”
The Bee said Mr. Williams, a 1956 graduate of Edison High School, was a “sure-handed, fleet-footed youngster” who had a chance to break out of poverty when he was awarded a football scholarship to Fresno State. He graduated in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in social welfare.
Heath said Mr. Williams served two years in the U.S. Army after graduating from high school. When he returned to Fresno he was an All-American at Fresno City and then played football at Fresno State.
Mr. Williams remained a Fresno State sports fan. “We loved to go to Fresno State basketball and baseball games,” Heath said. The friends also had season tickets to watch the San Francisco 49ers.
Mr. Williams enjoyed close relationships with his family, Heath said. “He and his family, including grandchildren, about two months ago took a final trip to Hawaii,” he said
Oliver Baines, the Fresno City Council’s only current African-American member, said he knew and admired Mr. Williams as “a trailblazer for the Fresno African-American community.” Baines praised him for “transforming the (Economic Opportunities Commission) into the giant powerhouse it is today.”
When Mr. Williams took over the commission in 1970, it had an annual budget of about $5 million. When he retired in 1993, the budget had ballooned to about $37 million.
During his time at the commission, Mr. Williams also served on multiple state and national advisory boards on poverty-related issues. In 1983, he was elected president of the South San Joaquin division of the League of California Cities. He also served on the boards of Community Medical Centers, the Fresno State Foundation and Premier Valley Bank.
Baines said Mr. Williams, also a successful businessman, frequently gave back to the west Fresno community Baines currently represents.
Mary Curry, a longtime advocate for west Fresno, said she met Mr. Williams when she started doing volunteer work in the city. He became “sort of an adviser,” she said. “He was just a very caring human being and wanted to see progress made for everyone in Fresno.”
Dan Whitehurst, Fresno’s mayor from 1977 to 1985, said Mr. Williams “did as much as anyone I know building bridges and getting things done in our town, especially on behalf of people in need.”
Fresno Mayor Lee Brand said in a statement Wednesday night that Mr. Williams “was a visionary who overcame discrimination” and “dedicated his career to transforming our city into a place where opportunity is available to everyone.”
Staff writer Barbara Anderson contributed to this story.
Occupation: Former Fresno City Council member, retired head of the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission
Survivors: Wife, Laura Williams; two sons, Michael Joseph Williams and Winston Jade Williams; a daughter, Terri Leigh Williams; a brother, George McGinnis
Services: 10:30 a.m. Feb. 16 at Peoples Church, 7172 N. Cedar Ave., Fresno