By Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on July 30, 2019
In 1974, Sidney T. Williams was an officer in the Montgomery, Alabama Police Department. He was one of a dozen or so black officers on the police force.
Mr. Williams befriended me after watching one of my trials in Montgomery’s municipal court. He was impressed that I did not allow an old-school racist judge to disrespect my client, who was a working-class black man in his 50s. In a courtroom packed with defendants, police officers, and onlookers, I insisted that my client be addressed as "Mister" and not by his first name.
Several months later, I tried another case in this crowded municipal courtroom. The case involved a white police officer named J.T. Rambo and a middle-age black woman who was physically mistreated by him during her arrest for a highly questionable traffic stop. I aggressively defended this woman during the trial. After I won her case, Officer Williams watched Rambo rush toward me, point his finger in my face, and threaten me with bodily harm if I ever challenged his use of excessive force, again. Without blinking an eye, I told Officer Rambo to “kiss my ass.” He turned red and quickly retorted that “we're going to teach you a lesson, boy."
Officer Williams, who lived in my Westside neighborhood, volunteered to cover my back and keep my family safe. He quietly organized a handful of black police officers who (a) watched my house during the daytime and at night, (b) monitored the elementary school on Rosa Parks Avenue that my children attended, and (c) stayed outside my downtown law office when I worked alone at night.
Proven Loyalty and Friendship During Two High-Profile Cases
On November 26, 1976, I won a full and unconditional pardon from the state of Alabama for Clarence Norris, the last known surviving “Scottsboro Boy.” I began working on the pardon in 1974 and was met with massive resistance every step of the way. The nine Scottsboro Boys were falsely accused in 1931 of raping two white girls on a train running through Paint Rock, Alabama. All were arrested, tried, convicted of rape, and sentenced to death on multiple occasions. The U.S. Supreme Court saved the Scottsboro Boys on three occasions within hours of their scheduled execution.
The Clarence Norris pardon was based upon a finding of “innocence” of the criminal charge of rape, as proclaimed by the Alabama Pardons and Parole Board. This was the first pardon ever granted by the state to a person who was originally sentenced to death and who was later declared innocent of the charges for which he was convicted. It was highly controversial at the time.
Sidney Williams arranged the police protection for Mr. Norris and me when Norris return to Alabama to pick up his pardon. The threats of death and bodily harm towards me seemed unbearable at the time, but Mr. Williams and his dedicated cadre of black police officers covered my back and made me feel safe during Mr. Norris’ visit to Montgomery.
In December 1975, I represented the Estate of Bernard Whitehurst in a high-profile, highly controversial wrongful death case against the police department. Whitehurst was an unarmed black man who was fatally shot by Montgomery police officer Donnie Foster, who was white. The police department initially claimed that Whitehurst was a fleeing felon who shot at Foster while on the run and was killed during a face-to-face gun battle with Foster.
After hearing one of the officers at the scene announce over the police radio that, “We done shot the wrong nigger,” Officer Williams took it upon himself to guide my investigation into Whitehurst’s death. At Williams’ suggestion, we exhumed Bernard Whitehurst’s body. The post-exhumation autopsy revealed that Whitehurst had shot in the back and not in his chest, as initially reported.
Thanks to Officer Williams, I later found out that the gun located next to Whitehurst’s body was a “throw-down” pistol that had been “planted” there after his death. The gun had been confiscated as evidence during a drug bust a year earlier and was last seen in the police department’s Property Room.
It was the Whitehurst case that brought threats of bodily harm to my young children, if I did not back off the case. Anonymous callers to my home threatened to throw acid in my children’s faces.
Once again, Sidney Williams promised me he would protect my children and keep them safe. He told me to stay focused on exposing Whitehurst’s wrongful death and the police cover-up in this case. I trusted him and pressed on with exposing the truth about what happened to Bernard Whitehurst.
The Whitehurst case evolved into a nationally recognized scandal that resulted in the resignations of Montgomery’s mayor and police commissioner, the indictment of three police officers, and the firing or resignation of eight others. This scandal was headlined in the April 3, 1977, edition of the Washington Post as “Alabama’s Watergate."
Breaking Through the Police Department’s Color Barrier
By 1977, racial discrimination against black police officers was rampant within the Montgomery police department. No black officer could get a promotion above the rank of corporal even though three of them applied for promotion on multiple occasions. Sidney Williams was one of these officers. All three of these black corporals were objectively more qualified than many of the white officers who were promoted to the rank of sergeant over them.
In early 1978, Sidney Williams decided that the time was right to lay the groundwork for challenging the promotional system within the police department. He asked me to take his case. I did not hesitate to represent him because I admired and respected Cpl. Williams’ intellectual acumen, his exceptional knowledge, skills and abilities as a police officer, his commitment to equal opportunity for black and women police officers, and his raw courage. This tall, dark, strong, and distinguished-looking man had “Big Balls.” It was now my turn to help Cpl. Williams break through the color barrier at the police department.
In September 1978, I sued the City of Montgomery on behalf of Cpl. Sidney T. Williams. We alleged that the city denied Williams a promotion to the rank of sergeant in retaliation for contacting the U.S. Department of Justice and because of the existence of racially discriminatory employment procedures. Cpl. Williams caught pure hell within the department for filing this lawsuit, but he never flinched or second-guessed his decision.
On April 30, 1979, a federal court ruled that the written examination for promotion to police sergeant had an impermissible "disparate racial impact" on black officers in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court enjoined the city from future use of that test, or any other test or procedure with disparate racial impact, unless and until the test or procedure has been "validated" in accordance with federal law. This court victory cleared the way for Sidney Williams and a host of black police officers to rise through the ranks of the department all the way up to the rank of police chief.
Mr. Williams retired as a Major in the police department after 25 years on the force. Following his retirement, Mr. Williams served as the Director of Safety and Security at Alabama State University. He later served as an Investigator of Medicaid Fraud in the Alabama Attorney General's Office and as a city councilman for the City of Montgomery. Sidney Williams also served as a Sergeant 1st Class after 26 years in the Alabama Army National Guard.
On October 29, 2001, Mr. Sidney Williams became the Chairman of the Alabama Pardons and Parole Board, where he served as a board member with distinction for eight years.
Mr. Sidney T. Williams is an American patriot and a law enforcement hero. Nobody in law enforcement today would do what Sidney Williams did to (a) protect my family, (b) stop the police abuse of innocent citizens, and (c) promote equal opportunity within the officer ranks. For his many acts of bravery and unselfish service to humanity, my family and I are eternally grateful to Sidney T. Williams.
I have waited for 45 years to tell Sidney Williams’ story. He is an incredible man. To this day, I look up to him.
It is now time for Mr. Sidney T. Williams to take his rightful place in the annals of recorded history. If there is a finer law enforcement officer in America, I have not met him or her. If there is a braver man on the planet, I have not encountered him.
Sidney T. Williams is in a class by himself. He is the yardstick by which I measure all law enforcement officers.
PHOTO: Mr. Sidney T. Williams is the bravest law enforcement officer I have ever met. He protected my family in the 1970s like nobody else could. We shall never forget him.
PHOTO: Officer Sidney Williams stands next to Officer Johnny Leroy Salter (far left) at a football game in 1966. These police officers were incredibly brave men and were committed to the fair administration of justice. (This photo is a courtesy of Ron Salter, Sr.)