The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) deeply mourns the passing of longtime board member Karen Hastie Williams, a trailblazing lawyer who broke barriers of race and gender during a career that spanned both government and the private sector. The first Black woman to serve as a United States Supreme Court clerk, Ms. Hastie Williams held positions in all three branches of the federal government and later became the first female partner at the Washington law firm Crowell & Moring. She was 76.
“Karen Hastie Williams was a trailblazer in the legal profession. She set a powerful example – as the first Black woman to clerk on the United States Supreme Court. She held influential positions on Capitol Hill and in the White House when few women – let alone Black women – were promoted to vital leadership roles,” said LDF President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill. “She was an enormously skilled lawyer – but more importantly, she was an enormously generous person, freely sharing her gifts with others, especially young lawyers at the start of their careers.
“During her years of service on the LDF Board, she challenged us to bring our work to a new generation so that the legacy of her father, William H. Hastie, and her mentors, Spottswood Robinson and Thurgood Marshall, would live on for years to come. LDF is a stronger and more vibrant organization because of her many contributions and we will miss her dearly.”
“She served as a board member under five LDF Director-Counsels,” said former LDF Director-Counsel Elaine Jones. “She was a committed and long-term leader of the Board’s Development Committee. But the cases and issues mattered to her, as did LDF. She was a committed responsible member of the Board who understood how to use her extraordinary private sector Rolodex to make a huge difference in major gifts. LDF was very fortunate to have her committed service.”
Ms. Hastie Williams’s ties to LDF were deep and lifelong. Her father, William, was a founding member of LDF’s Board of Directors and a friend and mentor to LDF’s founder Thurgood Marshall. With Marshall, he argued several landmark cases before the Supreme Court, including Morgan v. Virginia, a forerunner to Brown v. Board of Education, and Smith v. Allwright, a pivotal voting rights decision handed down in 1944. Mr. Hastie also served as dean of the Howard University Law School, governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and a judge on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, a post that made him the first Black federal judge in U.S. history.
Growing up as the daughter of a prominent civil rights leader left a profound impression on Ms. Hastie Williams, which sparked an early interest in the law and government. Her years in elementary and high school were just as influential, teaching her not to view her gender as an obstacle to achievement. In a 2007 interview, she recalled an elementary school teacher who made a point of calling on female students first and who urged a reluctant Ms. Hastie Williams to enter an election for class president, which she won.
“It’s those kinds of mentors that can really make a difference in a woman’s engagement in a later stage of her life,” she said.
At the Philadelphia High School for Girls, she flourished in a culture where women were taught to be leaders. “It was a wonderful experience for me,” she said. “Everyone who was the editor of the newspaper, the captain of the gym team, the head monitor – they were all women.”
She went on to Bates College, graduating in 1966, and later earned a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. After graduation, she took a job in New York with the Mobil Oil Corporation. These experiences cemented Ms. Hastie Williams’ interest in public policy, international affairs, and the law.
In 1968, she married Wesley Williams, Jr. and moved with him to Washington, D.C. After an unsuccessful attempt to secure a job at the State Department (“Richard Nixon’s State Department didn’t want to have anything to do with me,” she wryly observed), she decided to pursue law school. Her father was at first opposed to the idea, concerned that law school would be “too much” for a newly married woman who expected to become a mother soon.
Determined on her course, Ms. Hastie Williams convinced her parents that she was prepared for the challenge and applied to several law schools in the D.C. area. In keeping with the feminist education of her youth and adolescence, she elected to attend the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University where then-Dean Clinton Bamberger was working to increase the number of women in the student body. As part of that effort, he hired Professors Florence Roisman and Marna Tucker to teach some of the nation’s first courses on women and the law, which Ms. Hastie Williams later cited as a powerful influence on her professional development.
After graduating in 1973, she clerked at the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit with Judge Spottswood Robinson III, a member of LDF’s Brown v. Board litigation team. She then applied for a clerkship at the Supreme Court at the urging of William T. Coleman, an LDF board member and another key member of the Brown team. Ms. Hastie Williams was hired as a clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall, making her the first Black woman to clerk on the Supreme Court.
Shortly before her clerkship began, she gave birth to her first daughter, Amanda, and soon found herself balancing the responsibilities of parenthood with the demands of a Supreme Court clerkship. She would bring her daughter to work on Sundays: “Occasionally,” Ms. Hastie Williams said, “[Amanda] would throw a rattle or something over the side of the playpen that I didn’t notice, and invariably [Justice Marshall] would find it and would say, ‘I’ve had a visitor this weekend.’”
Although Justice Marshall frequently found himself in the court’s minority during this period, he urged his clerks not to surrender to defeatism. “We were writing a lot of dissents,” Ms. Hastie Williams recalled. “It’s easy to get disheartened when you’re just writing dissents. But you couldn’t really get disheartened in working with the Justice, because he would always say, ‘Write the best opinion draft that you can, because some day this is going to become law. I may not be here to see it, but I think we’re doing the right thing.’”
After the Supreme Court, Ms. Hastie Williams joined the law firm of Fried Frank in 1975. She was there for barely two years when another opportunity in government arose, this time as chief counsel to the Senate Budget Committee. Hesitant to leave the firm so soon after joining, she sought the advice of Max Kampelman, a Frank Fried partner who was formerly a close aide to Senator Hubert Humphrey. Kampelman urged her to take the job, stressing that Washington lawyers needed to understand the intricacies of legislation.
Like the Supreme Court, Capitol Hill had few women in leadership roles then and Ms. Hastie Williams faced her share of bias. During a job interview with Senator Ed Muskie, the Budget Committee’s Chairman, the senator asked his chief of staff to name the biggest challenge Ms. Hastie Williams would face on Capitol Hill. She recounted the episode for an interviewer: “Without blinking an eye, he said, ‘The toughest thing is going to be being a woman… [T]his is the last old boys’ bastion.’”
Ms. Hastie Williams took the job, earning the respect of her colleagues and the attention of President Jimmy Carter’s White House. In 1980, James McIntyre, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), invited Ms. Hastie Williams to join his staff as the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, giving her broad oversight of federal purchases and contracts. “It was my opportunity to fill out my card on the three branches of government,” she later joked.
When her tour of the federal government ended in 1981, Ms. Hastie Williams returned to private practice, joining the firm Crowell & Moring. Within 18 months, she was named the firm’s first female partner. Drawing on her experience at OMB, she specialized in helping businesses owned by women and people of color compete for government contracts. In keeping with her early interest in international affairs, she represented victims of terrorism in seeking compensation, including Terry Anderson, an Associated Press reporter held hostage for six years by Hezbollah.
Ms. Hastie Williams joined the LDF Board in 1979 and served as a member until 2012. She was chair of the Development Committee from 1997 until 2011, playing a crucial role in making a new generation aware of LDF’s work. In a 1998 letter to the Chancellor of North Carolina Central University, she wrote, “Just as the struggle continues, we need to continue expanding support among those to whom LDF is a historical reference in textbooks and not a reality.”
In addition to her service on multiple boards, Ms. Hastie Williams was a tireless mentor, making a point of directing corporate recruiters to promising young women and people of color whose resumes she kept stacked in her desk.
Reflecting on her tenure working for Justice Marshall, Ms. Hastie Williams, “It was humbling to be a part of that, and I think that having that privilege, to me, said that it was important for me to give back to the community in which I lived and work.”
Ms. Hastie Williams is survived by her husband, three children, six grandchildren, and a brother.