Robert L. Williams
|Robert Lee Williams|
|3rd Governor of Oklahoma|
January 11, 1915 – January 13, 1919
|Lieutenant||Martin E. Trapp|
|Preceded by||Lee Cruce|
|Succeeded by||James Robertson|
|1st Chief Justice of Oklahoma|
December 20, 1868|
|Died||April 10, 1948
Robert Lee Williams (December 20, 1868 – April 10, 1948) was an American lawyer, judge, and the third governor of Oklahoma. Williams played a role in the drafting of the Oklahoma Constitution and served as the first Oklahoma Supreme Court chief justice. He also served the United States federal government as a district and circuit judge.
As governor, Williams oversaw the state's response to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling against Jim Crow laws and its involvement in World War I. He instituted the Oklahoma State Board of Affairs, which provided central purchasing services to state agencies. Due to his direct administrative role and concentration of power, Williams counteracted the loss of executive power under Governor Lee Cruce. He was succeeded by James B. A. Robertson.
Williams died in 1948 in Durant, Oklahoma, where he is buried.
Williams was born on December 20, 1868, near Brundidge, Alabama. Williams earned a number of degrees, one included a study of Methodist doctrines, entitling him to become a certified minister. Earning a Doctor of Laws degree, Williams passed the Alabama bar exam in 1891 at the age of 23 and began his practice in Troy, Alabama.
At the age of 25, Williams, in 1893, moved to the Cherokee Outlet in Indian Territory following its opening where he briefly practiced law in Orlando. After briefly moving back to Alabama, Williams returned to Indian Territory in 1897 and settled in Durant. He became increasingly involved in local politics and a driving force behind the Democratic Party in modern day eastern Oklahoma in his role as the national committeeman from Indian Territory.
Statehood convention delegate
Selected to represent Durant and the surrounding area at the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention, Williams traveled to Guthrie where he would meet two men that would have profound effects on both his and Oklahoma’s future: Charles N. Haskell and William H. Murray. Through their labors, Oklahoma’s Constitution was established and Oklahoma became a state on November 16, 1907. On that same day, Charles Haskell was inaugurated as the first governor of Oklahoma.
Oklahoma Supreme Court chief justice
Through his friendship with Haskell and his own skill as an attorney, Williams was appointed by Haskell to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Once on the Court, Williams was selected to serve as the Court’s first Chief Justice. He was reappointed that post again in 1908 and would serve in that office until 1914, the only position he would hold on Oklahoma’s highest court.
In 1914, before the end of Oklahoma’s second governor’s term, Governor Lee Cruce, Williams resigned from his position as Chief Justice in order to place his name in the Democratic primaries for Governor of Oklahoma. His fame as Chief Justice easily won him the Democratic nomination. Despite being a Democrat, Williams was fiercely conservative and possessed an assertive personality and held a high sense of duty. Williams’s Republican opponent was John Fields, the editor of a farm related newspaper based in Oklahoma City. Williams faced a difficult fight for the governorship with Fields’s paper granting him the majority of the farm related voters’ vote. Despite this Williams’s popularity won him the victory by a narrow margin. He was inaugurated as the third Governor of Oklahoma on January 11, 1915.
Governor of Oklahoma
On January 1, 1917, Williams officially moved into the Oklahoma State Capitol before it was completed. On July 1 of that year the state officially took control of the building. The next year on March 18, 1918, the Oklahoma Legislature would hold its first meeting in its new permanent home. Despite the state’s adoption of the building, it was not completed until 1919. Even upon its completion, it lacked a dome. In 2000, Governor Frank Keating proposed that a dome be added. The building was finally “completed” with the erection of the dome on November 16, 2002.
When Williams took office, Oklahoma was suffering terrible economic troubles. Hoping to save the state, he implemented policies that he believed would solve the problems and bring improvement. First, Williams proposed legislation levying new taxes while appropriations for state institutions were decreased in order to reduce the state’s deficit in the budget.
One of William’s greatest advances in the state’s economy came when he instituted the Oklahoma State Board of Affairs, which provided central purchasing services to state agencies. The board's existence allowed for the consolidation of numerous state boards, agencies, and institutions. Williams influenced Oklahoma’s budget by making appointments and setting salaries. Due to his direct administrative role and concentration of power, Williams would regain a measure of the executive power that Cruce’s administration had lost.
William’s main mindset throughout his administration was reform. Through legislative action and program policy changes, Oklahoma instituted a highway construction bill, a state insurance bond, the office of pardon and parole and a State fiscal agency. Williams and state legislators amended the laws regarding the impeachment of state officials, provided for the aid of agriculture, created oil and gas divisions within the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, and changed the composition of the Oklahoma Supreme Court from six justices total to nine.
The Williams administration was marked by two events more than any others. The first was the landmark Supreme Court of the United States case Guinn v. United States in 1915. When state officials enforced Oklahoma’s Jim Crow laws, an appeal was made to the United States Supreme Court. When the court ruled that laws that “serve no rational purpose other than to disadvantage the right of African-American citizens to vote violated the Fifteenth Amendment,” many state officials were indicted and by sentenced for violation of federal election laws. This prompted Williams to call the state legislature into special session in 1916 to determine more constitutional methods of black suffrage. They enacted a constitutional amendment that asked voters to approve a literary test in Oklahoma as a voting requirement, but was rejected by voters, enabling many African-Americans to right to vote for the first time.
The second major event in his gubernatorial term was when the United States was forced to deal with World War I in 1916. The Great War would cast its shadow over the remainder of the governor's term. Numerous domestic priorities were dropped in favor of the mobilization of Oklahoma in preparation for war. The Oklahoma military was swelled through local draft boards, the maximum food production was encouraged to feed U.S. allies, the promotion of fuel and food conservation was enacted, and Williams acted as a moderator between the pro-war and anti-war factions of the state.
By the time January 13, 1919 rolled around, Williams was uninterested in running again. Oklahoma had elected to replace him with James B. A. Robertson, whom Williams had defeated in the 1914 Democratic primaries for governor.
Service in federal courts
Following the end of World War I and his exit from office, Williams had found favor in U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and was appointed to serve as a judge on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma. From 1919 onward, he spent the remainder of his political career in the judicial branch. In 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed him to serve as a circuit judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. Williams would hold that position until his retirement in 1939, but he would continue to serve as needed for the remainder of his life.
State of the State Speeches
- Norris, L. David. Williams, Robert Lee (1868-1948), Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture (accessed May 22, 2013)
- Robert Lee Williams, Rootsweb.ancestry.com. (accessed July 18, 2013)
- Biographical Note Robert Lee Williams, Oklahoma Department of Libraries. (accessed July 18, 2013)
- Governors of Oklahoma, Rootsweb.ancestry.com. (accessed July 18, 2013)
- Governor Robert L. Williams, Governor's Office Records, Oklahoma State Archives, Oklahoma Department of Libraries. (accessed July 18, 2013)
|Governor of Oklahoma