Orange County

Orange-Chatham chief public defender James Williams retires to pursuit of racial, justice issues

Orange-Chatham Chief Public Defender James E. Williams Jr. retired from his post on May 31 but will continue to wear multiple hats in the statewide fight for improvements in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
Orange-Chatham Chief Public Defender James E. Williams Jr. retired from his post on May 31 but will continue to wear multiple hats in the statewide fight for improvements in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

Nobody thinks James E. Williams Jr., the longtime chief public defender in Orange and Chatham counties, is going to slow down.

Williams retired May 31 after 27 years, but he’s still on the go, working with the North Carolina Public Defenders’ Committee on Racial Equity, which he founded; the North Carolina Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities; the Orange County Bias-Free Policing Coalition; and others.

There’s still a lot happening to try and address racial and justice issues, he said.

“One of my favorite people is (civil rights activist) Ella Baker, and Ella Baker said we who believe in freedom can never rest,” Williams said. “I think part of that was until it comes, and it certainly hasn’t come yet.”

His successor, Susan Seahorn, is a 19-year public defender and the third person to lead the Orange-Chatham office, which opened in 1986.

While he hasn’t always seen eye to eye with Williams, Orange-Chatham District Attorney Jim Woodall said the two found common ground in their small-town roots in eastern North Carolina. Woodall was hired as an assistant district attorney shortly after Williams was recruited to Orange County from Charlotte.

Williams is the kind of person who’s willing to risk failure on something new, reaching out to prosecutors about ways to improve the justice system, Woodall said. He also enjoys the gamesmanship of being an attorney, Woodall said.

“I’ve never seen anybody fight harder in a case than James did,” he said.

Williams talked this week about race, justice and retirement. He was born in 1951 in Plymouth, North Carolina, the grandson of sharecroppers. It was a different era, he said, and opportunities for blacks were minimal.

His father worked in a pulp factory, being passed over for promotions but training his white supervisors, and his mother, Annie Williams, a high school graduate, only found work cleaning and caring for white families and their children.

Here are excerpts from that interview:

Williams: Jim Crow was still strong (in Plymouth). The segregated institutions, whether you’re talking schools or libraries or parks. There was a city pool for white folk; black people weren’t allowed to go into the pool. You were taught to give wide berth if you were walking down the sidewalk and a white person was coming down the sidewalk.

But then I was also fortunate as a young person to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement. (Civil rights leaders) would come to Plymouth and we would have rallies and demonstrations, and we would march, fighting for the same things — employment opportunities, desegregation of libraries and school integration, and voter rights. We, from time to time, would face confrontation with the (Ku Klux) Klan, which was very active during that time and in that area.

Herald-Sun: It was at an early 1960s nonviolent resistance workshop that Williams first heard a speech by attorney Floyd B. McKissick Sr. He was “mesmerized by the power of his speech,” Williams said, and as a Duke University sophomore in the 1970s, he interned for McKissick’s planned racial utopia Soul City.

Williams: I do feel that a lot of what we see and experience today is a result of things that happened in the past, and until we have some understanding and appreciation of that, it’s hard to come up with remedies to address how race plays out in our society today.

It’s like talking today about the Confederate flag, monuments, this adoration of the Confederacy, and this unwillingness to really, honestly say what that stood for. (It’s) counterproductive, because until you appreciate the knowledge and confront the racial travesties, then we’ll never come to a place of real healing in this country.

Herald-Sun: Many of today’s problems reflect a failure of the country to embrace the constitutional amendments outlawing slavery, establishing citizenship rights and giving all men the right to vote, Williams said. He noted a loophole in the 13th Amendment that subjects convicted criminals to involuntary servitude.

Williams: After that, we had Southern states in particular to pass laws and adopt policies and practices to allow what’s called slavery by another name. You had a legal system that not only allowed that to happen, but to a large extent encouraged it.

In order to justify the segregation and Jim Crow exploitation of the former slaves and slavery by another name, you had to come up with something, so you come up with these stereotypes of black people as less than human, black people as criminally inclined, and so you plant these seeds.

I think what we see playing out, a lot of it is based upon behavior that may not be conscious behavior, but the impact is still the same. Whether it’s this inclination to be more quick to use your weapon in a situation where that officer approaches a black person, particularly a black male; whether it is this tendency to search a black person more often bcause they are deemed more suspicious than a similarly situated white person; whether it is the use of language that is less (respectful).

That needs to change.

Herald-Sun: What do you see as the next steps?

Williams: A lot of the problems that we see with race and justice and criminal justice particularly in our society is not law enforcement in and of itself. I think we as citizens, I think we as lawyers, we as judges, we as prosecutors, we as probation officers, we all have to look in the work and see where we are complicit.

First of all, there has to be an awareness. Someone has to take steps to make people conscious of what’s is going on. Then you become conscious of it, there needs to be corrective action. Once you get corrective action, there can be justice. And once you get justice, there can be healing.

But we have to get there by making people more aware and asking them to do that inventory. It’s not just going to be a question of am I a racist, but whether or not there are things that I am doing where I am complicit in these outcomes that we are seeing, and then what can I do ... to help alleviate this.

The other thing I’d like to stress, in order to really address the magnitude of the problems that we are trying to deal with within our criminal justice system, is that there has to be more empathy, there has to be more of a concern by ordinary citizens about what’s going on within our courts, within our prisons and within our society as it relates to people who have had interactions with the criminal justice system.

It’s going to have to be communities and individuals and citizens and residents saying this is wrong, it’s morally wrong, it’s counterproductive to our public safety. When you deprive people of hope, then it’s more likely that they are going to recidivate and they are going to end up in prison.

Herald-Sun: How has the conversation changed in Orange County?

Williams: I think there are several areas where it has changed, and one is that there’s more of a willingness now to have the public defender at the table when decisions are being made related to criminal justice within the district. Also, I think the willingness of those stakeholders to support some of the programs that can help address some of the inequities that we see.

One of the things that I’ve tried to do over the years is to convene people, to get people who don’t normally work together to address issues of race and justice. ... For me, this is not about who is “guilty.” This is about responsibility, and we are all responsible for this racially unjust, inequitable system that we have.

Herald-Sun: Do you plan to have some fun in your retirement?

Williams: I’m going to do some traveling. I’m going to go to some jazz festivals, go to more plays, just go sit out on the beach or go to the mountains, and just chill out.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb