It’s not often that a freshman member of Congress – in office barely two months – gets a shout out from the House Speaker during a congressional signing ceremony for a major piece of legislation. But that’s what happened to Rep. Nikema Williams.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi even said that in some ways Williams made passing the $1.9 trillion Covid relief package, the first Biden administration priority, possible.
Williams is not only a new House member, she is also the chairwoman of the Georgia Democratic Party, and was a key player in helping the formerly red state elect not only a Democratic president, but two senators whose victories flipped control of the US Senate to Democrats.
Still, Williams joked in an interview that when she got the email from Pelosi’s office inviting her to the “enrollment” – the official name for the process of key lawmakers signing legislation before it goes to the president – she had to look it up.
“I was like, ‘yes!’ But then I had to go to Google because I didn’t know what an enrollment ceremony was,” she said with a laugh.
The learning curve on becoming fluent in Washington speak may be steep at the start, but Williams is finding her footing fast – especially since Republicans back home in Georgia passed a new law limiting access to voting last week.
“I’m the first Black woman to ever be our state party chair in Georgia. And when I talked (about winning) leading up to the election, people were like, ‘Oh, that’s cute. They think they’re going to win,’” Williams said about Republicans underestimating her and colleagues like Stacey Abrams, a voting rights advocate whose efforts helped Democrats’ recent success in the state.
“Republicans are pushing back and they’re upset that we were able to win. And so they’re going to do everything in their power right now to restrict access to people who mainly look like me from voting,” said Williams.
Her mission now is to use her seat in Congress to work with Democratic leaders to put national voting protections in place.
“I had a colleague who came up to me and he said, ‘Nikema, I don’t understand why you want to do this.’ Like, ‘You understand that this will federalize our elections and we shouldn’t be doing this.’ And I said, ‘We absolutely should. If it were not for the federal government, I wouldn’t even have the right to vote in this country.’ So the right to vote should be standardized across the board. It shouldn’t matter what state you live in or which county you live in in the state. You should have the same access to the ballot,” she said.
Picking up the mantle from John Lewis
Williams is not only the first Black woman to chair the Georgia Democratic Party, she is also the first Black woman to represent Georgia’s 5th Congressional District – the seat held by civil rights icon John Lewis until his death last summer.
“Congressman Lewis often said, each generation has an obligation to move us one step closer. So it’s my turn to pick up the mantle,” Williams said.
Lewis was Williams’ mentor, friend and shopping buddy (they hit the sale rack at Dillard’s in Atlanta as often as they could). She even met her husband, Leslie Small, who had worked for the civil right icon, thanks to Lewis sending him on an errand to Hillary Clinton’s Georgia headquarters in 2008 where Williams was working.
Adorning the wall behind her congressional desk is a mural made by a constituent with pictures of her and Lewis.
In big letters is one of Lewis’ most famous sayings, that people should “get into good trouble, necessary trouble.”
“Being in this seat, I feel just – he already set the path and we know exactly what it is we should be doing and it’s up to us to live up to it,” she said wistfully.
Her Atlanta congressional district is steeped in history beyond Lewis. Another civil rights leader, Andrew Young, also held the seat. Williams represents iconic landmarks like the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached.
“While all seats have the same weighted vote here in the United States Congress, this is a very special seat and a very special district. I don’t take it lightly,” Williams said.
‘Trying to put us in our place’
Williams says the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, three days after she was sworn in, was a vivid reminder of her challenge, especially as one of just 24 Black women in a Congress of 535.
“To see that Confederate flag going through the rotunda at the Capitol was like someone was trying to send a reminder that no matter how far we get in this country – trying to put us in our place,” she recalled.
She said she is convinced that the twin Senate victories she helped make happen in Georgia played a big part in the attack.
“I think that it was a direct result of the power that they saw themselves losing in states like Georgia. And losing not only the presidency, but those two Senate seats, I think they just couldn’t take it anymore and refused to understand that other people can turn out to vote and have access to the same power that they have,” she added.
She said Georgia’s new restrictive voting law is about race and power, pure and simple.
“We might not be telling people that they have to count the number of jelly beans in a jar, but we are absolutely still looking for the same result,” she said, referring to an infamous test racist poll workers used to use to ban Black voters before federal civil rights laws were passed in the 1960s.
“We played by their rules,” Williams said of the recent elections in the state that Democrats won. “And now they want to change the rules. And it’s unfortunate that we have people in 2021 who are still trying to restrict people’s access to the ballot,” she added.
Childhood in poverty, family in activism
Like Lewis, Williams grew up in rural Alabama, in a small town called Smiths Station not far from the Georgia border.
“I never imagined, just from my upbringings, that I will be here in the United States Congress. I literally grew up in a home with no indoor plumbing and no running water,” Williams said.
The 42-year-old said that was unusual for someone her age growing up in the 1980s and 1990s.
“I didn’t know that that wasn’t the norm at the time. And I was raised by my grandparents who didn’t even have a high school education, but they never made me feel like anything was out of reach and always pushed me to do my very best, and there are a lot of people that looked out for me and gave me opportunities,” she recalled.
She said government assistance was key to her family’s survival.
“Literally once a month we drove to Opelika and we got food stamps and we got the government assistance, and so when I hear people here in the United States Congress talk about cutting those programs or those programs not being needed, I think about how much of an impact it had on me and us just being able to make it,” she said.
Political activism is in her DNA. Some of her most vivid memories are of her grandparents, aunts and uncles helping to get out the vote.
“I remember them working at the polls on Election Days and the leftover little cards that they would bring, where you have to register if you were a Democrat or Republican. And I would play school with those when they were brought home,” she said.
During her freshman year in high school, Williams was surprised to open her history book and see a picture of her great aunt, Autherine Lucy.
“I remember coming come and I was like, ‘Ma, Auntie Autherine is in my history book.’ I knew she had done something but not really paid attention to it.”
Lucy was the first Black student admitted to the University of Alabama.
Williams was arrested during a protest in 2018, but it was not civil rights-era civil disobedience. She was a state senator, and went to check out a protest in the Georgia state capitol. When police told the crowd to disperse, she did not think they were talking about her, since she was a legislator in the building for a special session.
“Legislators – we’re not even allowed to be arrested in our Constitution, and that day they took me to jail in zip ties and booked me in the county jail. I was told that I needed to remove my clothes so that they could strip search me and make sure that I wasn’t hiding anything in my vagina cavity,” Williams said.
Asked whether she thinks a White man would have been arrested like that, Williams said she knows he wouldn’t, because one of her White male colleagues was standing with her when she got arrested. He was not.
“I feel like they were trying to silence me to kind of put me in my place at that point,” she said. But it didn’t work. “It just gave me more resolve and a bigger platform to do more and to push further to make sure that our voices are heard and that we don’t back down,” she said.
A working mom from 600-plus miles away
In 2016, Williams was the one who got to announce Georgia’s delegates for Hillary Clinton during the Democratic convention in Philadelphia. She did it while holding her then-baby boy Carter.
“Being able to cast those votes for Hillary Clinton – the first woman to have the nomination for a major party in this country – meant a lot, especially holding my soon-to-be one-year-old, just for women in this country knowing that we don’t have to put our families aside to move forward in our careers,” Williams said.
Now that she is in Washington, that balance is a lot trickier since Carter, now five years old, is more than 600 miles away in Atlanta with Williams’ husband.
They are able to connect the way most working parents do – by FaceTime. The day we were with Williams, her son called to tell her he “rocked it” on a math test at school and that he was excited for a big Karate belt test he had that afternoon.
But Carter has already seen more of the world than mathematics and martial arts.
“He’s quite precocious for a 5-year-old, but he’s been around. I take him to events with me and he’s a part of everything, and we don’t separate our lives. And so we’ve had conversations with him about how some people are treated differently in this country,” Williams said.
Since the January 6 attack on the Capitol, they have had 24-hour security at home because of threats against Williams, both as the state party chair and now as a member of Congress, which was tough to explain to a 5-year-old.
“I remember the first day going through the carpool line, and there’s this extra car behind us. And they asked our security who he was here to pick up. And we had to explain to the teachers that we have security with us, and they’ll be coming with us to the pickup line every day,” she recalled.
But explaining what Carter can do with his future comes easier.
When he saw a television show about Jackie Robinson, Williams told her son what she says she will say – and fight for – for the rest of his life.
“He said, ‘Mommy, did you know that people didn’t want him to play baseball just because of his skin?’ He said, ‘Well, what about me? I’m the same color as him. Can I play baseball?’” Williams recalled.
Williams said she responded: “‘You can do anything in this world that you want to do.’”