Aubrey W. Williams

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Aubrey W. Williams

Aubrey Willis Williams social activist and New Deal program administrator (1890-1965) was born, on August 23, 1890, in Springville, Alabama, into a family economically and spiritually impoverished by the Civil War.


Forced by economic circumstances to leave school at seven, he worked at various jobs around Birmingham. At 21, he was admitted to Maryville College in Tennessee and took courses for the ministry. There he gained his first formal education and acquired a lifelong devotion to social activism.

At the outbreak of World War I, he volunteered for battlefield ambulance duty with the YMCA but soon left to join the French Foreign Legion. After America's entry into the war, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served with the artillery. When the war ended, he remained in Europe, studying at the University of Bordeaux. In 1919, he returned to the United States and enrolled in the social work program at the University of Cincinnati, graduating in 1920. On December 20, 1920, Williams married Anita Schreck, with whom he had four sons.[1]


In 1922 Williams was named executive secretary of the Wisconsin Conference for Social Work. It was in this capacity that he developed the exceptional administrative skills that brought him, eventually, to the attention of Harry Hopkins, head of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal relief activities at the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The two men worked effectively together, and because of Hopkins's increasing involvement in general policy-making and his serious health problems, Williams effectively ran the WPA for long periods. This gained him considerable influence in New Deal circles, as did his friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Williams's outspoken identification with the New Deal's liberal wing, however, and in particular, his advocacy of civil rights for blacks, earned him powerful enemies among conservatives and southern congressional delegations. Together, they blocked his appointment as head of the WPA in 1938, after Hopkins moved to the Department of Commerce. Instead, he became head of the National Youth Administration (NYA), where he remained till its dismantling in 1943. President Roosevelt then nominated him to head the Rural Electrification Administration in 1945, but again a coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats, outraged by his liberal political and racial views, prevented his confirmation after a bitter hearing. Williams never again worked in a governmental position.[2]

While waiting for his unsuccessful nomination, Williams worked as organizational director for the Farmers Union.[3]

Southern Conference for Human Welfare

175px-SCHW program.jpg

The 1938 Southern Conference for Human Welfare meeting was a landmark political meeting held in Birmingham from Sunday November 20 to Wednesday November 23, 1938. It was organized by the Birmingham-based Southern Conference for Human Welfare.

Publicity for the meeting heralded that, "the Conference, by providing a meeting ground for all Southern progressives, will promote mutual trust and cooperation between them for greater service to the South.” Fisk University sociologist Charles S. Johnson reported that the 1,200-plus attendees were a "curiously mixed body which included labor leaders and economists, farmers and sharecroppers, industrialists and social executives, government officials and civic leaders, ministers and politicians, students and interested individuals.

Guests of honor included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, and Governor Bibb Graves. Also among the attendees, a fourth of whom were African-American, were the Works Progress Administration's Aubrey W. Williams, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, Avondale Mills president Donald Comer, Methodist minister James Dombrowski, Senator Claude Pepper, and SCHW co-founder Virginia Durr.[4]

Back to the South

In 1945 Williams returned South, to Montgomery, and was soon joined by liberal fellow New Dealers and civil-rights activists Clifford Durr and Virginia Foster Durr. With financing from pioneering Chicago retailer Marshall Field, Williams and fellow activist Gould Beech purchased the newspaper the Southern Farmer and turned it into the South's leading journal of liberal opinion. Throughout the 1950s he continued his outspoken advocacy of civil rights, civil liberties, and social justice as a member of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, as president of its successor, the Southern Conference Educational Fund, and as president of the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee. Not surprisingly, he was under constant attack from conservatives, especially after the desegregation of public schools in 1954. That year, along with Virginia Foster Durr, Williams was investigated by the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security for alleged Communist Party USA membership. His last years in Alabama were lonely and embattled, the more so after Southern Farmer failed, and his health declined precipitously. In 1963 Williams returned to Washington, where he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Despite his illness, he took part in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington. Williams died on March 15, 1965.[5]


In March, 1954, the SISS held hearings in New Orleans on Southern Conference Educational Fund. Former communists Paul Crouch and John Butler accused Aubrey W. Williams, then SCEF president, and former head of the National Youth Administration under Franklin D. Roosevelt, of being a member of the Communist Party USA in the forties.[6]

Investigators also linked Williams to the the Workers Alliance, Washington Committee for Democratic Action, and the American Youth Congress.[7]

National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee

Circa 1962, Aubrey W. Williams was Chairman Emeritus of the Communist Party USA front, National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee.[8]

As of May 1964, Aubrey W. Williams, Former Director, National Youth Administration, Publisher The Southern Farmer, was listed as a sponsor of the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee.

LBJ connection

“By executive order the President forthwith created a National Youth Administration, with Aubrey W. Williams as executive director, [and] Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Josephine Roche as executive committee chairman. Following the usual New Deal formula, there were to be 48 State Youth Divisions under 48 State Youth Directors, plus Youth Committees in cities, towns, counties.” The young man selected as youth director for the state of Texas was the 26-year-old future president of the United States Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Johnson had begun his political career as the congressional secretary and assistant to Congressman Richard Mifflin Kleberg. In 1935 he left the service of Congressman Kleberg to become Texas state director of the National Youth Administration, headed by Williams. During his tenure, the two men established a lasting friendship. In his new position, with headquarters in Austin, Texas, Johnson soon put an elaborate program into effect. Years later, a notable African American leader of the time reportedly said: "In the middle thirties we didn't know Lyndon Johnson from Adam," and continued, "We began to get word up here that there was one NYA director who wasn't like the others. He was looking after Negroes and poor folks and most NYA people weren't doing that." Johnson carried that same progressive spirit into his presidency, as exemplified in his War on Poverty program and the Great Society. It has also be said that these early youth programs were the inspiration for such Johnsonian initiatives as the Job Corps and Upward Bound.[9]

Later Williams opposed the Vietnam War, expressing as much to the newly re-elected President Johnson in 1965. The following is an excerpt from the book Pillar of Fire (pg. 384), written by Taylor Branch:

"From his sick bed, dying of Cancer, Aubrey Williams scrawled a “Dear Lyndon” letter to his rambunctious protégé of the New Deal era. He instructed the President that if he received the letter and did not find it “worth answering, do not send me one of those synthetic letters that somebody signs for you.”

“What I want to say-and I feel sure that I speak for the great majority of American people- for Godsake [sic] don’t get us bogged down in a hopeless mess in South East Asia. [John Foster] Dulles made as many mistakes as any one man in our history. Agree to a conference and get out. It must be costing us 2 million dollars a day. That is a lot of money. Will you let me give you one more piece of advice. All men want individual freedom. It may take time for you to work it out, but one of the great things about Franklin D. Roosevelt was poise. He knew human nature and had the courage to give it a chance. I hope you get to see this. Still devotedly,”

In his reply, Johnson assured his old mentor that he “would never reply to him synthetically”, adding that he believed his Asia policy to be “the correct one.”


  1. Encyclopedia of Alabama Aubrey W. Williams John Salmond, La Trobe University]
  2. Encyclopedia of Alabama Aubrey W. Williams John Salmond, La Trobe University]
  3. Pittsburgh Press Feb 6, 1945, page 2, NYA's ex head denies he's a communist]
  4. BHAwiki, 938 Southern Conference for Human Welfare meeting
  5. Encyclopedia of Alabama Aubrey W. Williams John Salmond, La Trobe University]
  6. [ THE ATTACK ON SOUTHERN CONFERENCE EDUCATIONAL FUND by Student Civil Liberties Coordinating Committee]
  7. Pittsburgh Press Feb 6, 1945, page 2, NYA's ex head denies he's a communist]
  8. National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee letterhead circa 1962
  9. John Salmond (2007), Aubrey W. Williams, Encyclopedia of Alabama, accessed September 16, 2009