“She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue…. Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.” –Proverbs31, in Honor of former State Rep. Polly Williams, courtesy of Urban Cusp.
Former Wisconsin State Representative Annette Polly Williams, nationally and internationally known as the “Mother of Parental School Choice,” a revolutionary, ground-breaking program that allowed parents of any income level—particularly low-income—to send their children to private schools in the Milwaukee and other parts of the state, died Sunday at age 77.
Williams represented the predominately Black and Democratic 10th Assembly District in the Legislature from 1980 when she was first elected, until January 3, 2011.
When she retired, Williams left as the longest serving woman in the history of the Wisconsin state Legislature, serving in that body for 30 years.
The official cause of death has not been publically released. Funeral services will be held Thursday, Nov. 20, at 12 Noon at Parklawn Assembly of God, 3725 N. Sherman Blvd. Visitation will be Tuesday from 9 a.m. at the church until the start of the services.
In a statement, Cong. Gwen Moore, who served with Williams in the state Assembly before moving on to the state Senate and eventually the U.S. Congress, called Williams “a political powerhouse in Wisconsin and throughout the nation, leaving behind a proud, historic legacy of public service.
“She was fiercely independent,” Moore continued, “a free thinker whose determination was only matched by her compassion and concern for her constituents.
“I knew Polly not only as a colleague and mentor, but as a cherished friend,” Moore recalled. “Polly, however powerful, perfected the ‘servant leader’ model. She inspired me and other legislators across Wisconsin, demonstrating honest leadership through service.”
As an example, Moore recalled how Williams prepared meals for bereaved families stricken by tragedy and provided her entire community for the annual free holiday feast.
“She was an example not only to those who wished to serve, but also to all who shared her eagerness to make a difference in their community.”
Former state Senator, now City Treasurer, Spencer Coggs remembered Williams as not only a colleague, but as a maternal figure who counseled and mentored him and other Black members of the Legislature.
“She had gone gray early and she used that to her advantage,” Coggs recalled during a Sunday television interview with WITI-FOX 6 News. “She’d talk to people and say, ‘baby, you gotta do this a certain way,’” Coggs recalled during the interview.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who served with Williams in the Legislature in the 1980s before he too became a U.S. congressman, called Williams, “a fierce fighter for what she believed was right for African American children living in poverty.
“She was relentless on the education front and would go up against absolutely anybody and fight for what she believed in. She was the mother of ‘School Choice.’”
Another former fellow legislator, state Rep. Leon Young, called Williams a “mentor and a trusted colleague, who was always willing to impart some sage advice for the asking.
Noting that Williams will always be remembered for her myriad accomplishments and as the mother of School Choice, Young believed Williams’ greatest attributes was “her unbridled compassion and commitment to the issues she believed in.
“Our community and state has lost a spirited statesperson and advocate.”
Former Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent and education reform advocate, Dr. Howard Fuller, who carried on the Choice revolution in education after he stepped down from that position, reacted to Williams death in a Twitter post: “Our hearts are broken by the death of Polly Williams. Her life meant something to all of us who care about the plight of poor children.
“There would be no parent choice movement had it not been for the courage of Polly Williams. She was the definition of a warrior. May she RIP.”
Kenneth Campbell, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), which honored Williams for her courage and leadership in the Parental School Choice movement in 2013, said his organization fights everyday to ensure communities have access to high-quality educational options.
“Polly believed that too and she showed us by never giving up. We are who we are because of her bravery, her compassion and her strength. We will miss her.”
Educator Taki S. Raton, who founded and was principal of Blyden-Delaney Academy, a private Choice School located in the community, called Williams a true icon not just for Milwaukee, but the nation in the field of education, with a focus on African American children in particular.
“What the public school sector needed most was strong, uncompromising and straight forward open competition for area students and Williams’ historic School Choice bill provided that thrust,” Raton said in a statement.
“I am highly grateful and deeply honored that I had the opportunity to both participate and support the Milwaukee Parental Choice School initiative. (Williams’) work, dedication and vision will most certainly be remembered as a major contribution in the option to allow parents a choice in the education of their children.”
A native of Belzoni, Miss. Williams graduated from North Division High School (where, according to noted community activist and historian Reuben Harpole, she got her nickname “Polly” from a classmate), which produced many Black leaders in government, law enforcement, business and sports.
She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and worked various jobs including, according to an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel typist, cashier, mental health assistant and counselor before her election to the state Assembly in 1980.
It was the same year the push for educational options began, according to a book by MCJ Associate Publisher Mikel Holt on the battle for school choice titled, “Not Yet Free At Last: The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement.”
In an excerpt from his book, Holt notes that out of the disappointment a majority of Black parents had for the 1976 Milwaukee Public School’s desegregation plan emerged, in 1980, newly elected state Representative Williams, a North Division, graduate who he described as: A “former Welfare mother and Urban Day (School) parent…(and) fiery social activist who cut her teeth fighting for predominately Black electorial districts under reapportionment.”
In another excerpt, Holt described Williams’ ambitious vision of education for Black children that became the foundation for the revolutionary reform initiative: “Polly Williams’ vision was the most ambitious of all. She wanted to expose and force the public school system into accountability, but she was also guided by a belief that the public school system as it was structured would never serve the interests of Black and poor people.
“As a result, Williams saw as her mission the creation of a separate Black public school district that would complement a private consortium of nonsectarian and parochial schools. An unwavering advocate of Black independent schools, Williams saw community control of institutions—public or private—as the ultimate goal.”
This ambitious vision would eventually be fashioned—with the help of her legislative aide and friend Larry Harwell, a brilliant strategist and thinker who brought Williams vision to life on paper as legislation—earning her the wrath of her political party, the Democratic Party, and even some of her Black colleagues in the Legislature, MPS and the community.
But it was embraced across the aisle by her Republican colleagues and championed by then Gov. Tommy Thompson. This alliance further strained to the near breaking point Williams’ relationship with her party.
But Williams wouldn’t let partisan politics, nor criticism from segments of her own community and people, deter her from her mission and ultimate goal. “My fight is for our, for my black children — to be able to access this system and get the best that this system offers,” Williams reportedly said about her fight for School Choice.
The vision (albeit altered and somewhat reduced in size) became reality when it was passed by the legislature in 1990—with the backing of Republican lawmakers and Thompson and, ironically, with the opposition of her own Democratic colleagues.
The program spurred other education and community activists around the nation to push for a similar program, which was seen as revolutionary and on a level of importance with the historic U.S. Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
The Parental Choice revolution trail blazed a path that allowed for the creation of other unique education models such as charter schools and schools run by the private sector.
Choice is seen by many who were involved in the movement or who observed it from the periphery as igniting debates on race, class and quality within American education.
In the years following the landmark legislation and enactment of Choice, Williams focused on improving the educational outcomes for children within the Milwaukee Public School district, the very same district she butted heads with before and during her Choice crusade.
She formed an organization of retired educators, parents and concerned citizens called the African American Education Council, which gave the community a voice in the recent and ongoing efforts to reform MPS.
More recently, Williams took to the airwaves with her own radio talk show on Monday Mornings still addressing the issues of importance to the community from education, to politics, to the accurate representation of Black history and culture.
Also contributing to this story: May 2010 MCJ article, WITI-FOX 6 News website, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Twitter, the office of Cong. Gwen Moore, the Book: “Not Yet Free At Last: The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement,” by Mikel Holt.