The Hon. Charles Williams on the Importance of Patience and Empathy in the Legal System

Categories: Stories of Impact, Board of Directors,

The Hon. Charles E. Williams was the first Black circuit judge in the 12th Judicial Circuit of Florida, appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles on November 8, 1997. Williams took office in January of 1998.

Born in Durham, North Carolina, Williams was raised in St. Petersburg from the age of 4. He moved to Sarasota in the mid-1980s for a job offer with his wife, Jacquelyn, and their two daughters, Caitlin and Charlette.

Williams has clocked time at the state attorney’s office in Sarasota, the public defenders’ offices in Sarasota and Manatee counties, and in private practice. His awards include Manatee County Bar Association’s Community Service Award, Manatee and Sarasota Counties’ NAACP’s Public Service Award, Sarasota County Branch NAACP’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the C.L. McKaig Award, presented by the Sarasota County Bar Association in recognition and appreciation of his tireless dedication to promoting the ideals of equality, justice and professionalism.

Outside his judicial duties, Williams writes, directs, and produces documentary films. His Film Through the Tunnel won Best Historical Documentary at the DocMiami International Film Festival. He received the 2015 Sidney Poitier Family Award for his work on the film Newtown at 100 and for promoting diversity in film. Currently, he’s working on a documentary with former judge Durand Adams titled Fish Fry, which is scheduled for release in 2024.

Williams also sits on the boards of Embracing Our Differences, Florida Studio Theatre, The Boxser Diversity Initiative, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, and the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition, and he works closely with Booker High School’s Law Academy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about growing up in St. Pete.

“My family moved to St. Petersburg, which was one of the last legally segregated communities in the state, when I was 4. Around the mid-to-late 1960s, my school went from being segregated to desegregated.

“I’m probably among the last of a generation that grew up in a legally segregated community, but St. Petersburg was an ideal place for me. Both of my parents were teachers within a tight-knit community. Most of the Black residents lived on the south side of the city, south of Central Avenue, as they still do today. I look back on it and know that I had a fantastic childhood.

“I was the youngest of five with a 10-year gap between me and my next oldest sibling, so it was like being an only child. I had all the advantages of being an only child, but best of both worlds with four siblings. My parents told me that they were too old to run around and discipline me, so I’d just have to be a good kid. And I was.”

What are some of your fond memories of that time?

“My father was a college chemistry professor at the then-segregated Gibbs Junior College in St. Petersburg. Annually, the National Science Foundation provided funding for Black college teachers to attend summer classes at universities throughout the country.

“For three years, I traveled with my father to Oregon, Massachusetts and Michigan. Those trips gave me an opportunity to experience different circumstances and people outside of the segregated south. I have fond memories of driving across the country—I saw snow for the first time on a mountain and cowboys in the desserts of Wyoming. It was great.”

We’ve heard about the dangers of Black people driving cross-country during that era. Did your father ever have any apprehension?

“The trips took place during the late 1960s early ’70s, so it wasn’t during the height of the civil rights struggle, but it was during a critical period.

“During one of our trips, my father had a medical problem in Medford, Oregon. It was around 1969. They took my father into hospital and wanted him to stay for a couple days. The entire hospital community embraced and cared for us. They even found us a place to stay. As apprehensive as a Black family from the South would be in a strange place in the west, it was an enjoyable experience that changed my perspective.”

Sounds like you had a unique experience growing up. Where did racism enter your life?

“Many think that prejudice is a Southern thing, but the most prejudice I experienced in my life was on one of those summer trips with my father in Boston. During that time, Boston was going through a difficult period with the busing crisis. There was a lot of festering bad blood. While my father was attending classes at Northeastern University, I spent that summer at the Huntington Avenue YMCA. The first time I was called a racial slur was while walking to the Y. Somebody yelled the slur from a car.

“As a young teenager, I’d never had that issue in St. Petersburg, and I was taken aback. That term had never been hurled at me before, but the experience informed who I am.

“It didn’t—and doesn’t—affect my feelings about others, though. When I was in Boston, I was treated kindly by many. In fact, I forged lifelong friendships with a lot of white people who I remain in contact with today. [But that experience] was a product of growing up as a person of color in this country.”

How did your family prepare you for racist incidents?

“It is the duty of Black families, especially in the South, to prepare each other and their children for these types of incidents. Look at the strength of people in Selma and Montgomery—they were prepared. It’s [a form of] armor that’s passed down from generation to generation.”

You attended Howard University. What was it like being a Black student among Black students?

“In junior high and high school, I was one of the first groups bused to integrate the schools. Going to Howard, I went from an integrated environment where I was in the minority—Black students were approximately 15-20% of the student body—to a HBCU, where I went from being in the minority to the majority. Those four years were some of the best years of my life.”

How so?

“Howard is one of the country’s premier institutions, not just as a HBCU. It’s produced leaders and figures from politics to the medical and legal fields. It has quite the legacy of achievement. Also, it’s important to understand the history of the HBCU. It was established to educate formerly enslaved people and to elevate others.

“There, I was also exposed to people from different places. I had roommates from Sierra Leone, New York City and Los Angeles. I got to experience other cultures. Being in an institution with a legacy like Howard’s was a life-changing experience. It was not only great academically, but spiritually, as well. All graduates understand that there’s a sense of greater service and duty in helping others—it’s instilled. Howard’s motto is ‘truth in service.’ I try to live up to that.”

Tell us about a memorable Howard experience.

“Growing up, Muhammad Ali was my hero—so much so that I cried when he lost [a fight] to Joe Frasier. He came to Howard when I was a junior, and as a member of the speaker’s bureau, I had the privilege of being on stage when he walked on. There was a long receiving line, and as I watched my childhood idol shaking hands with others, I knew that I had to say something relevant and meaningful. I wanted to call him ‘Champ.’ When he got to me, I started crying. I mean, babbling crying. He looked at me and kindly patted me on the shoulder, then moved down the line. That sums up my admiration for Ali.

“I am not ashamed to say I cried when Ali came up to me. It was the only time in my life that I felt that way in presence of another human being. Even to this day, I get chills thinking about it.”

What was it about Ali that resonated with you so deeply?

“As a quiet kid, I grew up watching and admiring this man who had a confidence that I did not. I was a big fan. He had a profound impact on me. He was the person who instilled confidence in me when I was alone in the house after my brothers had moved out. That’s what I wanted to tell him—how important he was when I was growing up. Maybe he heard it through my tears.”

What is the most challenging aspect of being a judge?

“I say that being a judge is being a professional decision maker, and sometimes those decisions are difficult. People think it’s easy—that all you do is sit up there and decide one way or the other, but it’s stressful and takes more time than you think.

“What’s important is to treat each case with the dignity and care it deserves; to make certain to treat litigants at the trial court level where I am, with respect; and to understand that their day in court is the most important day for them, so give them the attention they need and make quality decisions. To not lose sight of these points is a difficult thing because, as a judge, we must maintain that excellence every day.

“There are professions where you cannot have a bad day—such as an airline pilot or a surgeon. It’s the same when you are making a decision about someone’s life or property. You can’t have a bad day.”

As a human being, how is that possible?

“Like anything else, you need training. I had a great education and practical experience at the state attorney’s public defender’s office. There are many qualities that people underestimate and take for granted. For instance, it’s important to understand people, listen effectively and have patience. If you don’t have patience, being a judge is not a good fit for you. You also need a certain amount of empathy and to be able to make hard decisions when you must. You must care about people, because you may be seeing a litigant on a bad day, but they could be good people.”

“I was blessed to have some of those skills genetically passed down. My parents were always good listeners, and my father was exceedingly soft spoken and patient. I have carried that with me.

As the court’s mentor coordinator to new judges, how do you instill these qualities?

“I tell new judges that although we wear robes and sit up high, we are public servants. We are here to do service, not to be served. It’s an important distinction.

“Anecdotally, one of the best lessons I learned on how to be a judge was watching a woman behind the counter at the tag office. We’ve all been there—you take a number and wait to be called. The person in front of me had a stack of papers and a box—he clearly had a lot that was causing him problems, but all he wanted was his tag.

“I watched, wondering how she would help him. She took all the time necessary to go through everything he brought, and she even got on the phone to help him. She knew I was next, gave me a nod, and continued to patiently help him. It took a long time, but that man left with a tag. She got it done. That’s what we, as judges, do at a different level. And that’s my idea of the perfect public servant—solving someone’s problems, making the effort to do it and having a satisfied customer. You must have that kind of patience to do this job effectively.”

How do you stay humble?

“You can get more accomplished being calm than by being a firebrand. I tell new judges that it’s easy to lose perspective because, when you become a judge, people stand up when you come into a room, they call you ‘Your Honor,’ your jokes become funnier, people return your phones calls. But that’s not you. That’s the position, and you have to separate the two.

“I give new judges what I call my 20 rules of judicial success. One is that you don’t know everything and never will. I begin with the question, ‘Can you see Texas from that high horse?’ The expression sets [new judges] up with the reminder that they cannot be hoity-toity because they are a public servant—they’re a symbol of justice. Being a judge is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. We are a cog in the court system, which must be treated with the dignity it deserves.”

What would you like your white friends or acquaintances to be doing right now?

“I go back to my parents, who were educators. It’s important to learn something on a regular basis. I don’t care what it is. I encourage people to educate themselves on topics that are unfamiliar to them.

“All in all, we have an obligation to help each other by leaving our comfort zones—to learn about other cultures and people—to make this a better community.”