The first African American ever elected to the San Jose City Council received an honor in her own name. At the annual Martin Luther King Jr. luncheon, the African American Community Service Agency presented the newly named Iola M. Williams lifetime achievement award to a woman who reshaped history.
“I don’t brag – I get things done,” Williams said in front of friends, family and community members at the San Jose Scottish Rite Center on Monday.
She’s known as “Iola the Un-Colla”: longtime South Bay residents may remember her campaign slogan from 1970s, when she ran for school board and eventually San Jose City Council in 1979 and won.
“I was crazy enough to do all that for $400 a month – that’s what our salary was when I first went on Council,” Williams joked.
Williams held the post for 12 years. For two of those terms, she served as Vice Mayor of the South Bay’s biggest city. She says one of her proudest achievement in the Bay Area include a health bill that helped seniors who were not receiving healthcare services.
In the National League of Cities, Williams served on the Human Resources Committee, among others, and two years as a member of the Board of Directors, which represented California cities on the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research Council and Task Force on Civil Rights.
“She’s a legend here,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager, who worked on Williams’ school board campaign 40 years ago. “She was a pioneer – a lot of people looked up to her. She was a mentor to many men and woman of all races.”
Williams moved to Lampasas, Texas to be closer to family and for medical treatments after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease four years ago. She had been living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where she was born, after she retired from elected office in 1991.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an inspiration to Williams. She says she has seen dramatic changes in civil rights during her life.
“My grandmother could not vote. My mother, it wasn’t until the 70s until she could vote. So a lot of things happened during that time. They seemed like little things but they carried families through the years. We have seen a lot of the things that remain, but there’s so much that has to be done,” Williams said.
Her advice for improving race relations today is simple.
“First of all, just shut up. Stop calling people names. Stop talking about things you don’t know about, stop making conclusions before you’ve gotten anything ,” Williams said. “People need to shut up and feel.”