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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Joseph T. Watkins: This Soldier Fought America’s Foreign and Domestic Enemies

By: Donald V. Watkins

Copyrighted and Published on July 28, 2023

IMAGE: U.S. Army Corporal Joseph T. Watkins in France during World War II.

Joseph T. Watkins was my father’s youngest brother. He was smart, strong, and brave.

We called him “Uncle J.T.”

Uncle J.T. was a World War II veteran who served as a corporal in an all-black Army unit that fought in the campaign to liberate France from Nazi occupation. He was proud of his military service for America, and the Watkins family was proud of him.

Uncle J.T. would later become an effective fighter in another kind of war -- the never-ending battle for the protection and advancement of civil and constitutional rights in America.

After the War, Uncle J.T. moved to Washington and became a housing inspector for the District of Columbia government. He also rose through the ranks to become president of his local federal employees’ union.

The racial discrimination Uncle J.T. faced in Washington during the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s was heartbreaking. Uncle J.T. had put his life on the line in France for a nation that despised him at home.

In 1966, Uncle J.T. initiated an Equal Employment Opportunity Act administrative complaint on behalf of himself and others similarly situated that challenged the District of Columbia's widespread employment discrimination against blacks in hiring and promotional practices. Taking this bold action unleashed pure hell against him as a black employee.

IMAGE: Joseph T. Watkins, as a civil rights litigant, circa 1966.

In 1969, Uncle J.T., having exhausted his EEOC administrative remedies, filed a class action lawsuit alleging that the District of Columbia's unlawful employment and promotional practices violated his civil and constitutional rights, as well as those of the class of blacks he represented.

In 1971, Uncle J.T. won his lawsuit after proving a pervasive pattern of racial discrimination against African-Americans in the District’s employment practices.

However, the trial court declined to grant certain relief requested by Uncle J.T., including (a) an immediate promotion for himself and another nonwhite employee named Somera, the only two employees who had been denied promotions because of race and were still employees; (b) rescission of a specific promotion of a white employee; (c) disciplinary action against persons still employees who were found to have perpetrated the system of racial discrimination; and (d) an injunction against further acts of discrimination and retention of jurisdiction.

Uncle J.T. appealed the trial court’s denial of the promotional relief for himself and Somera and denial of the requested injunctive relief.

On December 29, 1972, Uncle J.T. won the requested equitable relief that had been denied to him and Somera by the trial court.

Black federal employees in the District of Columbia were ecstatic. It was the first major employment discrimination victory for the plaintiffs' class in the District in the early 1970s.

In making its ruling, the Court of Appeals stated:

Appellant Watkins, who has for six years waged an almost single-handed battle against racial discrimination in the Housing Division, deserves a clear response from the courts……Accordingly, …… [t]he District Court is directed to remand the question of the promotional status of employees Watkins and Somera to the Hearing Committee or other appropriate administrative forum. The court is also directed to issue an appropriate order enjoining the Housing Division from further acts of racial discrimination and ordering the Division to take steps necessary to ensure that the effects of past discrimination will be eliminated and that there will be no discrimination in the future, the order to provide that the court will retain jurisdiction to enforce its order.”

After I graduated from the University of Alabama's law school in 1973 and passed the Alabama Bar exams several months later, I joined Uncle J.T. on the frontlines of the fight against racial discrimination in employment practices in the District of Columbia and other federal agencies in Washington.

With Uncle J.T.’s help, I secured a nice office in a building at the corner of Albemarle St. and Wisconsin Avenue in the Georgetown area of Washington. I represented unionized federal government employees in Washington from 1974 until I was elected to the Montgomery, Alabama city council in 1979.

Uncle J.T. continued to wage a passionate fight against racial discrimination within a number of federal agencies in the District of Columbia. His passion for the fight was exceeded only by his commitment to the cause of freedom and equality for all.

On June 8, 1973, Uncle J.T. won another round of sweeping injunctive relief for the plaintiffs' class of black District of Columbia employees after the trial court described the government's massive resistance to its anti-discrimination orders as "unreasonable, obdurate obstinacy."

By 1974, Uncle J.T. had achieved as much judicial relief as the courts would grant him and the class he represented. During the pendency of his last motion to enforce the prior court orders regarding the denial of a personal promotion to a GS-12 position, Uncle J.T. received a promotion to a GS-11 position, and later to a GS-12 job, before the Court of Appeals could issue a final ruling on his motion.

With this favorable personnel action and years of accumulated backpay, Uncle J.T. shifted his focus to securing upward mobility for a host of other black employees by establishing an aggressive and well-funded litigation support network.

Uncle J.T. died on November 3, 2005. He fought for equal opportunity until the last breath of life left his body. Uncle J.T. died on his feet fighting like a real soldier. He never got on his knees and surrendered his manhood to anybody.

Uncle J.T.'s lovely wife Johnnie S. Watkins, who died on July 13, 2020, always had his back. As a federal employee herself, Aunt Johnnie championed every battle in Uncle J.T.'s fight for freedom, dignity, and equality for black Americans.

IMAGE: Joseph T. and Johnnie S. Watkins, circa early 2000s.

Uncle J.T.’s two children, John Adam Watkins, II, and Monte Jean Watkins Boone, are my first cousins. Today, they carry on Uncle J.T.'s legacy of freedom and equality every day, in their own way.

As for me, I am so blessed that every man I have known in the Watkins family has been a committed warrior for civil, constitutional, and human rights. They never made excuses for why they could not or would not fight for the right of African-Americans to participate as full citizens in American society.

Every one of these men was prepared to sacrifice his life for the modern-day civil rights movement. Uncle J.T., my father, both of my grandfathers, all of my uncles, and my brothers never left the civil rights battlefield.

Likewise, they never shirked from their duty to protect and advance civil and constitutional rights for African-Americans, and neither will I.

One of the greatest blessings I have experienced in life was the opportunity to fight on the frontlines of the battles for the fair administration of justice and equal employment opportunity in Washington, D.C. with Uncle J.T., from 1974 to 1978.

This is why I am, today, saluting Uncle J.T. in death, as I did in life.


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