Only weeks before he died on April 12 at the age of 74, Cecil Williams was at the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Ark., asking questions of politicians on behalf of cotton producers.
Never afraid to speak truth to power during his prolific life, Williams asked Sens. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., what they would do “about the proposed $200,000” limit on government payments to farmers. “That would kill this area up and down the Mississippi River and the Mid-South,” he warned.
The exchange — which, like many, ended with a Williams' joke and the overflow crowd chuckling — was entirely in character for the long-time executive vice president of the Agricultural Council of Arkansas (ACA). More recently, Williams held the same title for Cotton Producers of Missouri.
Williams, easily recognized under a thick shock of white hair, was known for his tenacity in defense of agriculture while, at the same time, being quick with a laugh. A details man, he had the ability and vibrant vocabulary to break down a complex legislative issue to its essence.
Those skills, tendencies and longevity served him equally well at countless producer meetings held at the end of dusty roads and in wrangling with politicians in ornately furnished offices. Williams saw passage of numerous farm bills and state agricultural laws and was around long enough to see the consequences — both good and bad — wrought from each.
“I come from sharecroppers,” he said in 2002, shortly before retiring from the ACA. “We were hard-pressed, and there's no doubt I fight for farmers because of where I come from. I knew education was my ticket out.”
After four years in the Air Force, his university education came from Louisiana State University. In 1960, Williams was one of the first five LSU graduates to earn a degree in agribusiness.
Williams then went to work at the National Cotton Council, where he labored for five years signing up gins and doing NCC fieldwork. In 1965, he took over leadership of the ACA.
Over the next 40 years, Williams worked to bring Mid-South producers, among many other things, favorable farm bills, check-offs for research and better insurance programs.
Williams is often mentioned with Mississippi's B.F. Smith and Texas' Don Johnson as a group that played a pivotal role in Southern agriculture. The trio wasn't afraid to get to the heart of an issue.
“You have to understand, in almost every company or organization, there are folks overseeing the process from on high, and there are folks actually getting it done on the ground,” said Hal Lewis, cotton fiber expert and long-time friend of Williams. “Very rarely are they the same. You've got the guys who are the corporate finaglers and the guys who get their hands dirty. Cecil, Smith and Johnson worked the handshake, but they also had dirt under their nails.”
Few know that Williams was one of the organizers of the NCC's Producers Steering Committee. Williams, along with Johnson and Smith, “practically invented” the committee, said Lewis. Prior to the committee's formation, producers had very little to say about NCC policy.
“What most people don't know is if producers disagree with Cotton Council policy, we have the right, according to the founding rules, to go outside and represent ourselves,” said Lewis. “Cecil and these other gentlemen had the foresight to make sure producers wouldn't be railroaded on policy issues. The architects of that set up need to be commended.”
Williams is survived by his wife, Barbara Rodgers Williams of West Memphis, Ark.; three sons, Cecil “Rodger” Williams and Christopher B. Williams, both of West Memphis; and C. Winston Williams of Baton Rouge, La.; three brothers, Ralph L. Williams of Bondera, Texas, Harold “Pete” Williams of Baton Rouge, and Morris L. Williams of Albuquerque, N.M.; a sister, Reva D. Williams of Zachary, La.; and two grandchildren.
The family requests that memorials be sent to First United Methodist Church in West Memphis.
(For a 2002 feature on Williams, see http://deltafarmpress.com/mag/farming_cecil_williams_year/index.html.)