Avon Williams: Legal Fighter for Civil Rights in Tennessee


Civil rights; Lawyers; Legislators; School integration


In his lifetime, Avon Williams was a remarkable leader in his space. He was an innovative and substantial personality known for creating significant landmarks in African American circles. 

He had a high intellectual capacity and a solid moral, political authority. The famous quote by Shannon Alder, “Carve your name on hearts not tombstones,” defines the legacy that Avon Williams has etched into peoples’ minds. 

Early Life

Avon Williams, an African American attorney in Nashville, a civil rights lawyer, and a former State Senator in Tennessee, was born in Knoxville on Dec. 22, 1921. His academic pursuit earned him a degree in the year 1940 from Johnson C. Smith University, and in 1948, a law degree from Boston University.

Civil Rights Litigation

In a nation where outright discrimination against African Americans is not new, Avon Williams strongly involved in civil-rights litigation. 

He fought against discrimination in public schools. He operated in higher realms of legal activities and was part of a major resurgence of black lawmakers in Tennessee. 

When there was little respect for black attorneys, Avon Williams emerged as a prominent leader as an awe-inspiring example.

In 1950, Avon Williams filed the first case in Tennessee to integrate public schools in Anderson County. He became involved in several civil rights and school desegregation cases involving public schools, public accommodations, and racial discrimination in employment. 

His many appearances before the Supreme Court led to fruitful efforts in the desegregation establishment in the neighborhoods and schools in Tennessee.

Merging Two Universities

In 1951, he sought to attain admission for blacks into the University of Tennessee graduate school. He spearheaded the merger between the Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee-Nashville in 1972. 

This unification was an important event in American history. It saw the amalgamation of white institutions and black institutions for the first time in history. The Tennessee State University had a Downtown Campus which was later given the name Avon Williams Campus on April 16, 1986.

State Senator

Avon Williams was an all-around figure. He founded the Davidson County Independent Political Council in 1962. In 1966, he formed the Tennessee Voters Council. They voted Williams to the State Senate in 1968, and he served until 1990 as a State Senator in Nashville. 

He was one of the first blacks to serve as a State Senator. Avon Williams became the first black to preside over a state Senate committee. He was appointed as chairman of the Local Government Committee and the Senate State in 1977.

Transforming Education

His contribution to education was immense. He formulated and passed laws that led to the design of new buildings to improve the state of Tennessee State University. 

These new buildings included the Gentry Health and Physical Education Center, erected in 1976 at the cost of $9 million, and the Engineering Building in 1981 at $3.56 million.

Awards Won

Avon Williams earned outstanding awards during his lifetime. 

The Black Caucus awarded him the “Legislator of the year in 1981”. In 1982, he received the “Bar Association Award” because of his exemplary contribution to the community. 

He earned the “Award of Excellence” in 1984. In 1986, he earned the Tennessee Legislative Service Award, and in 1989, Fisk University awarded him an honorary LL.D. Degree.                 

Death of a Hero

Avon Williams died at the age of 72 years at Meharry-Hubbard Hospital in Nashville. He died of Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis complication). His legacy still lives.

Avon Williams was not only a courageous personality but a selfless man who stood in the gap for those with limited opportunities. Avon became a voice for the voiceless. He stood in the forefront of justice administration, civil rights pursuit, and an assertive attitude towards fighting racial prejudice. 

He was relentless in his fight for justice and became an icon of school integration between Tennessee’s black and white schools.


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