James E. Williams Jr. dedicated 27 years of his life to being a public defender. But he hasn't let retirement stop him from serving on community committees and receiving accolades for his work.
On Sunday, Feb. 26, the 33rd annual Pauli Murray Award ceremony was held by the Orange County Human Relations Commission, where Williams and Delores P. Simpson won the 2023 award.
Shameka Fairbanks, the chief equity and human rights officer of the Orange County Office of Equity and Inclusion, said this year’s ceremony included a live band and a spoken word artist, who she said was inspired by Murray, an American civil rights activist, lawyer and gender equality advocate.
Fairbanks said this award was created by Murray’s family as a way to honor their life and work, which pushed the social justice movement forward.
Michael Fath, a member of the Human Relations Commission and a co-chairperson for the 2023 award, said the program only had adult nominees.
However, there are also typically youth and businesses categories. He said they choose Orange County residents who support human rights, diversity and equity as their winners.
“The goal is to really foster the desire to honor people who’ve committed a big part of their life to the principles of Pauli Murray,” he said.
Although it's not intended to be a lifetime achievement award, Fath said both of this year’s winners have lived a lifetime of leadership and personal commitment to the award’s principles.
James E. Williams Jr.
Williams, who serves as the Racial Equity Coordinator with The Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said he believes that he won the award because of his work as a public defender for Orange and Chatham County.
As a public defender, Williams said he had to constantly fight battles — especially to discuss decisions being made about policies such as pretrial release, bail reform and racial equality regarding juvenile disciplines in Orange County.
“Policies were being made related to all of those areas that impacted whether or not our clients received equal justice on the law,” he said. “But we weren't at the table, I had to fight for that.”
Currently, Williams is a co-chairperson for the Orange County Community Remembrance Coalition, where he said they partner with the Equal Justice Initiative to educate communities about the racial terror of lynching, racial suppression and oppression in the county.
He also chairs the North Carolina Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System.
“I try to identify areas of concern that need redress and figure out ways to bring about that redress,” Williams said.
Delores P. Simpson
Fairbanks said Simpson is 92 years old, and even after her retirement from education, she became the first African-American woman to chair the Orange County School Board.
“(Simpson) in her own right is just a pillar in this community,” she said.
Betty Eidenier, who has known Simpson for six decades, said Simpson was one of the first Black women students at UNC and was inducted into the Golden Rams Society, an honorary society that honors African-American alumni.
Through her work as an Orange County school teacher, including during desegregation, Fath said the review committee recognized how similar Simpson’s principles were to Murray’s.
Simpson’s commitment to helping young generations of children and to improving the Orange County Public Library are traits that Fath said also appealed to the committee.
“It was just such a pleasure to read the nomination forms for both of them,” he said. “Because you smile when you read it, to see how accomplished both of these winners were and how deserving they were of the award.”
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