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‘Pistol’ Helped Found ACLU in N.M.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Grace Watson Williams learned shortly before she died that she was to be the beneficiary of the Giraffe Award, which honors an individual who “takes personal or professional risks to stand up for his or her beliefs and make a difference.”

“She was absolutely thrilled,” said Gale Doyel, who will present the engraved metal sculpture to a Williams representative at a Saturday memorial service for friends and family dubbed “Remembering Grace.” Past recipients of the Giraffe Award, organized in honor of former University of New Mexico women’s athletics director Linda Estes, include the late Supreme Court Justice Gene Franchini, Military Religious Freedom Foundation founder Mikey Weinstein, and Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson.

Williams’ longtime friend Imogene “Gene” Lindsay said a mariachi band will perform at the memorial to give Grace the appropriate send-off.

Williams, a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and its executive director from 1975 to 1993, died July 4 in Albuquerque.

Williams was born in 1921 in Oklahoma, moved to Albuquerque in 1952 with her husband, Charles, and became an active volunteer in groups including the Democratic Party, the League of Women Voters, the American Red Cross. She completed a bachelor’s degree at UNM in 1972.

“Grace was a pistol,” said Phil Davis, co-legal director of the ACLU. “She had boundless energy, and could wax eloquent on civil liberties at the drop of a hat. She had a great sense of humor. She was fearless and brash about the importance of civil liberties and was willing to tell anyone, anywhere, anytime why civil liberties were critical to the fabric of American society. She stood up against mayors, and governors and legislators, and was not afraid to let them know exactly what she thought.”

Williams helped the organization grow in size, impact and influence, winning significant legal victories including removal of religious iconography from the Bernalillo County seal, a challenge to the infiltration of citizen organizations by the Albuquerque Police Department, and the impetus for sweeping reforms of the New Mexico corrections system in the wake of the 1980 Santa Fe penitentiary riot.

“New Mexicans have never had a more dedicated champion of our constitutional rights than Grace Williams. She never forgot that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” said New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels, who served as president of the ACLU-NM board of directors during her tenure.

As executive director, Williams tripled the ACLU staff, recruited volunteer attorneys from the community and organized a legal panel to steer the organization’s litigation efforts. The ACLU of New Mexico also became fully financially independent because of her skillful fundraising and management.

The ACLU of New Mexico honored Williams as Civil Libertarian of the Decade in 1992. She has also received the Albuquerque Bar Association’s Liberty Bell Award, and the Governor’s Award for Outstanding Women.

Longtime Journal writer Jim Belshaw reflected on her career when she retired in 1992:

“We all get irritated for the same reason. Liberty as an abstraction is sometimes easier to deal with than liberty as a reality. Which is to say that when it comes to the exercise of individual rights, sometimes all we do is talk a good game. For the past 18 years, Grace Watson Williams has dragged us, kicking and screaming, out of abstraction and into reality. It’s all in a day’s work for her.”
Richard Pipes/journalGrace Williams, a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and its executive director from 1975 to 1993, died July 4 in Albuquerque. She is pictured here in 1978.

Grace Watson Williams
— This article appeared on page B3 of the Albuquerque Journal

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