Clinton aide Carol Willis remembered as key in black-voter efforts

Posted: September 5, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

FILE PHOTO: Carol Willis in 2014

Carol D. Willis, a longtime aide to former President Bill Clinton, died Tuesday in Little Rock.

Willis, 69, suffered from diabetes and had been in hospice care, said Darrin Williams of Little Rock, CEO of Southern Bancorp Inc.

"Carol Willis helped Bill Clinton make deep connections in the African-American community," Williams said. "He was probably one of the most effective grass-roots organizers in the world, for sure in the country. He lived a full life."

Bob Nash of Little Rock, former White House personnel director and longtime Clinton adviser, said Willis was one of Clinton's law students at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, in the 1970s.

Nash said Clinton spent a lot of time tutoring black law students in the evenings.

"That's what endeared Carol Willis to him," Nash said.

"At a time when African-Americans were just beginning to attend the school in substantial numbers, he was a voice for inclusion and was an important part of my efforts to help more African-American students earn law degrees there," Clinton said of Willis in a statement issued Tuesday.

"From the time I entered state politics until I left the White House, he was one of my most effective and trusted campaign aides and advisers," said Clinton. "He was a brilliant political organizer who really cared about people and making sure that their voices were heard.

"He was also a good, loyal friend who was never afraid to speak hard truths if I needed to hear them. He always had my back, in victory and defeat. In the toughest times, he could always make me laugh. The harder the fight, the better he did."

Clinton said Willis always found time to mentor younger people looking to get involved in politics and make a difference.

"He brought me into the Clinton organization in 1983," pastor William Smart of Los Angeles wrote on Facebook. "He saw more in people than they saw in themselves. He pushed you to discover your greatness and your untapped resources within your very own soul. He was a political community grassroots genius on the Little Rock and Arkansas and the national levels."

Rodney Slater, the former U.S. transportation secretary, who is from Marianna, said Willis helped him organize a rally for Clinton at Thompson-Robbins Airport near Helena. Clinton was trying to recapture the governor's seat in 1982, and he refused to attend any more segregated events in east Arkansas.

So organizers decided the airport was neutral ground for a desegregated audience, and the event was a success, Slater said. Afterward, desegregated campaign events were held for Clinton in other east Arkansas cities.

"We were a part of that effort," Slater said. "It was a wonderful thing. ... You have to have someone like Carol Willis get them there and also to help them know that someone wants to listen to them."

Born in McGehee, Carol D. Willis II was the second son of the late Rev. Carol D. Willis and Emma Platt Willis.

He earned a bachelor's degree from Philander Smith College in Little Rock. Willis attended law school in Fayetteville and received his law degree from Southern University in Baton Rouge.

The Willis family owned a funeral home and a construction company in McGehee, according to an article by Janis F. Kearney, who was personal diarist to Clinton.

"Politics is in my blood, thanks to my father, a minister and contractor, and to some extent my mother, the second female African Methodist Episcopal minister appointed in the district, and the first woman in the area to lead a march, protesting a police shooting of a young black child in 1980," Willis told Kearney. "My first political experience was in 1964. I joined a protest against the firing of the black schools superintendent. Later, in 1976, I ran for Desha county judge -- winning 48 percent of the votes; and in 1978, for county clerk."

Willis told Kearney that his father gave him a piece of advice when he went off to college: "You're not the smartest in the bunch, and you don't really have any talents. But, I expect you to be the leader."

Full statement from Bill Clinton on death of Carol Willis

I loved Carol Willis. We met more than 40 years ago when he was a student at the University of Arkansas Law School and I was teaching there. At a time when African-Americans were just beginning to attend the school in substantial numbers, he was a voice for inclusion and was an important part of my efforts to help more African-American students earn law degrees there.

From the time I entered state politics until I left the White House, he was one of my most effective and trusted campaign aides and advisors. He was a brilliant political organizer who really cared about people and making sure that their voices were heard. He was also a good, loyal friend who was never afraid to speak hard truths if I needed to hear them. He always had my back, in victory and defeat. In the toughest times, he could always make me laugh. The harder the fight, the better he did.

And no matter how busy he was, he was always willing to be a mentor to younger people, especially African-Americans, looking to get involved in politics and make a difference. His legacy will live on in his beloved Arkansas and across the country through the many people he inspired and whose lives he touched.

Indispensable in campaigns, full of down-home wisdom, a real friend. That was Carol Willis.

Carol lived a good, full life, and Hillary and I will always be grateful to have shared so much of it with him. Our thoughts and prayers are with Joyce and their family.

Metro on 09/05/2018