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Civil rights group receives a challenge, gives awards

(Ran East, South editions)

As an influential activist group observed its 10th year Thursday evening, NAACP official Leon Russell issued a challenge.

Find a cause, he said, and pursue it persistently.

Russell, a national NAACP board member, spoke to the African-American Voters Research and Education Committee and to the wider community.

"If you get people to recognize their own power, you get them to recognize their own authority and their power to change things in the community," said Russell, who also is human rights officer for Pinellas County and immediate past president of the Florida Conference of NAACP branches.

AAVREC honored two St. Petersburg residents for having taken up challenges for years.

I.W. "Ike" Williams, among the first African-American lawyers to practice full time in St. Petersburg, received the Perkins T. Shelton Humanitarian Award, and Winnie Foster, a white woman, received the Unsung Hero Award.

"A lot of people are deserving, but we're very excited about the two individuals," said AAVREC vice chairman Abdul Karim Ali.

Foster has been active in civil rights causes for more than a generation, often taking a low-profile role in the trenches.

Her gift, Ali said, is looking at the value of the individual. "She goes beyond what we call race," he said.

Williams, affectionately called "the attorney" by his friends, didn't make a speech but smiled shyly as he accepted the award with his wife, Anne, and son Javier by his side.

The audience, which gave Williams a standing ovation, included Edna "Bunny" Downing, who was Williams's ninth-grade teacher at Bartow's Union Academy. Mrs. Downing is the widow of the late Alvin Downing, a renowned Tampa Bay area musician and teacher.

Williams, the Gibbs High School Class of 1945 valedictorian and a New York University law school graduate, had an office on 22nd Street S with the late Fred Minnis. It served as an early nerve center for the civil rights movement.

Williams remained associated with the cause for three decades. He organized voter registration drives, represented students arrested for lunch-counter sit-ins and fought for integration of the county's public golf courses.

In the summer of 1964, he helped defuse racial tension at the Barrel Drive-In, a hangout for young whites situated on the edge of Methodist Town, a black neighborhood.

Williams ran for the City Council in 1963 and twice for the Florida Legislature.

None of the races were successful. But the council campaign was particularly significant because Williams made a good showing and continued in politics.

It prompted newsman Edward R. Murrow, then director of the United States Information Agency, to say Williams' effort "will be very useful in our continuing effort to tell the story of progress against racial prejudice."

Williams's health has been precarious since quintuple bypass heart surgery in 1986, but even after that, he founded Blacks Against Dangerous Drugs.

"It just goes on and on," said Vyrle Davis, AAVREC chair, referring to Williams's record.

Williams was among AAVREC's founding members in 1996, as was Shelton, for whom the humanitarian award is named.

In the beginning, the group met informally on Saturday mornings at Atwater's Cafeteria.

But it was not long before it began making a difference.

An energetic, last-minute campaign helped produce in 1999 a 23-vote victory for an expanded County Commission with single-member districts.

Foster was one of those who helped.

Davis called the effort AAVREC's biggest victory. The group had gone up against some of the county's established political power.

But there have been other achievements. Even a partial list is impressive.

For example, the group helped establish single-member School Board districts in 2002. It has worked with lawyers on the school desegregation court order and the unitary status concept.

It founded the Pinellas County Voters Coalition and sponsored forums leading to organizations working to assure quality education for black students.

The group has 75-80 members. More are being sought, said Shirley Scott, AAVREC membership coordinator.

Information from Times files was used in this report.