In 1971 Robert Jerry “Ben” Williams became one of the first two African Americans to sign a football scholarship at the University of Mississippi. The son of sharecroppers Robert J. Williams and Ernestine Williams, Ben Williams was born on 1 September 1954 in Yazoo City. Williams and his five younger siblings worked the land alongside their parents. A natural athlete, he played baseball and football throughout high school, and during his senior year Williams lettered in football at the recently integrated Yazoo City High School.
After receiving scholarship offers from Mississippi State University, Jackson State, Kansas State, and the University of Mississippi, Williams chose to enroll at the University of Mississippi so he could remain close to home, receive a quality education, and play football in the Southeastern Conference. The fact that he and James Reed would be the only Africans Americans on the team did not influence Williams’s decision. Williams excelled both on and off the field. He earned all-American honors in 1975 and was a three-time all-conference selection. Playing defensive end, Williams recorded 377 career tackles, and his 18 quarterback sacks during the 1973 season are a team record. In addition, he graduated in 1976 with a degree in business administration and was the first African American voted Colonel Reb, the highest honor bestowed by the student body on an athlete. Drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the third round of the National Football League draft, Williams played ten seasons for the team and was selected to the 1982 Pro Bowl.
Williams always remained close to his Mississippi roots, working at a Jackson bank during the off-season. After retiring from football in 1986, Williams returned to Jackson and started working in the construction industry. He later founded a commercial construction company, LYNCO, and involved himself in numerous charitable causes. He has been inducted into the Mississippi Hall of Fame and the Ole Miss Hall of Fame, was named to the Buffalo Bills Silver Anniversary team, and has received the University of Mississippi Award of Distinction and the Ralph L. Wilson Leadership Award. He endowed the university’s Ben Williams Minority Scholarship Fund in 1992.
- Ben Williams, interview by Matthew M. Bailey (2006)
- Ben Williams File, Ole Miss Athletic Association