Tireless social activist and New Deal program administrator Aubrey Williams (1890-1965) was born, on August 23, 1890, in Springville, Alabama, into a family economically and spiritually impoverished by the Civil War. Forced by economic circumstances to leave school at seven, he worked at various jobs around Birmingham. At 21, he was admitted to Maryville College in Tennessee and took courses for the ministry. There he gained his first formal education and acquired a lifelong devotion to social activism.
At the outbreak of World War I, he volunteered for battlefield ambulance duty with the YMCA but soon left to join the French Foreign Legion. After America's entry into the war, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served with the artillery. When the war ended, he remained in Europe, studying at the University of Bordeaux. In 1919, he returned to the United States and enrolled in the social work program at the University of Cincinnati, graduating in 1920. On December 20, 1920, Williams married Anita Schreck, with whom he had four sons.
In 1922 Williams was named executive secretary of the Wisconsin Conference for Social Work. It was in this capacity that he developed the exceptional administrative skills that brought him, eventually, to the attention of Harry Hopkins, head of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal relief activities at the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The two men worked effectively together, and because of Hopkins's increasing involvement in general policy-making and his serious health problems, Williams effectively ran the WPA for long periods. This gained him considerable influence in New Deal circles, as did his friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Williams's outspoken identification with the New Deal's liberal wing, however, and in particular, his advocacy of civil rights for blacks, earned him powerful enemies among conservatives and southern congressional delegations. Together, they blocked his appointment as head of the WPA in 1938, after Hopkins moved to the Department of Commerce. Instead, he became head of the National Youth Administration (NYA), where he remained till its dismantling in 1943. President Roosevelt then nominated him to head the Rural Electrification Administration in 1945, but again a coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats, outraged by his liberal political and racial views, prevented his confirmation after a bitter hearing. Williams never again worked in a governmental position.
In 1945 Williams returned South, to Montgomery, and was soon joined by liberal fellow New Dealers and civil-rights activists Clifford and Virginia Foster Durr. With financing from pioneering Chicago retailer Marshall Field, Williams and fellow activist Gould Beech purchased the newspaper the Southern Farmer and turned it into the South's leading journal of liberal opinion. Throughout the 1950s he continued his outspoken advocacy
of civil rights, civil liberties, and social justice as a member of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, as president of its successor, the Southern Conference Education Fund, and as president of the National Committee to Abolish
the House Un-American Activities Committee. Not surprisingly, he was under constant attack from conservatives, especially
after the desegregation of public schools in 1954. That year, along with Virginia Foster Durr, Williams was investigated by
the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security for alleged Communist Party membership. His last years in Alabama were lonely
and embattled, the more so after Southern Farmer failed, and his health declined precipitously. In 1963 Williams returned to Washington, where he was diagnosed with stomach
cancer. Despite his illness, he took part in Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Washington. Williams died on March 15, 1965.
Brown, Sarah Hart. Standing Against Dragons: Three Southern Lawyers in an Era of Fear. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
Salmond, John A. A Southern Rebel: The Life and Times of Aubrey Willis Williams, 1890-1965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.
———. The Conscience of a Lawyer. Clifford J. Durr and American Civil Liberties, 1899-1975. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.
La Trobe University
Published March 1, 2007
Last updated March 5, 2012