Novella S. Williams, 87, a West Philadelphia civic leader who began her fight against crime and corruption in her own neighborhood and pressed her advocacy of human rights and affirmative action onto the national stage, has died.

Her family announced Tuesday that Mrs. Williams died Friday, March 20, of heart failure at her home, just as the sun set.

Mrs. Williams was perhaps best known as the founder and president of Citizens for Progress Inc. (CFP). Under her five decades of leadership, the nonprofit worked to develop affirmative action in public education and to promote economic improvement for all, but especially those in the African American community.

In addition to CFP, Mrs. Williams founded two dozen other citizen-action groups in the areas of education, alcohol and drug abuse prevention, recreation, housing, health care, crime prevention, and economic development.

Mayor Nutter issued a statement praising Mrs. Williams as "a strong woman and a great leader in our city. She was opinionated, focused, and forceful. If she believed in a cause, she'd knock down a wall to make something happen," the mayor said.

"She taught so many of us - young people at the time, getting into community leadership and politics - so many lessons about engagement and activism. Novella Williams did her thing. She did it her way, and she made her presence felt all across Philadelphia. She will be greatly missed," Nutter said.

She was the founder of the West Philadelphia Community Free School - an early form of charter education - and the Black Women's Crusade Against Vice, Crime, and Corruption in West Philadelphia. The latter was credited with the cleanup and revitalization of the 52d Street strip in West Philadelphia.

"Novella Williams was a passionate crusader for community empowerment," former Mayor W. Wilson Goode said in an e-mail. "She was a powerful and influential voice for education of children and equal justice.

"She was a fearless fighter for the poor and those who were marginalized. Few have had the impact she did. She is a Philadelphia treasure."

On the regional level, Mrs. Williams was a former trustee of Lincoln University and the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania; a local delegate for the 1976 Democratic National Convention; vice chair of the Police Advisory Commission of Philadelphia; cochair and board member of the Urban Affairs Coalition; and a chief negotiator with the group MOVE in the mid-1980s.

On the national level, she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Minority Business Resource Center Advisory Board. She even went international, serving as a nongovernmental organization representative to the United Nations, her family said.

Mrs. Williams' professional career was spent as the director of the Philadelphia Anti-Poverty Action Commission Alcoholism Center No. 11.

In October 1998, after the death from cancer of her eldest daughter, Kim Denise Williams, 40, Mrs. Williams founded the Kim Denise Williams Health and Education Foundation.

According to an obituary for Miss Williams, mother and daughter were bonded by their community activism.

As a child of 7 or 8, Miss Williams joined her mother in marches against crime and corruption. "She was right there beside me, marching down the street with a sign," Mrs. Williams said. "She is the daughter that every mother would love to have."

For her commitment to cultural and political awareness and her determination to provoke change, Mrs. Williams received numerous awards: Woman of the Year from the National Association of Public Accountants; Humanitarian Award from the National Opportunities Industrialization Center; Community Service Award from the Black Political Forum; Woman of Wonder Award from the National Council of Negro Women; and the Citizen's Award from Blacks Networking for Progress.

Mrs. Williams was a longtime member of White Rock Baptist Church. She enjoyed attending National Baptist Conventions on behalf of the church.

A native of Raleigh, N.C., Mrs. Williams moved to Philadelphia in 1948 with her husband, Thomas Williams. He died in 2006.

She is survived by a son, Thomas, and daughters Michelle Murphy and Pamela. After the death of her sister, she raised nephews Willis Daniels, who survives, and Frank Daniels and Charles Stewart, both now deceased.

A viewing from 5 to 8 p.m. Sunday, March 29, will be followed by a second viewing from 8 to 10 a.m. Monday, March 30, both at White Rock Baptist Church, 5240 Chestnut St., Philadelphia. A funeral will be at 10 a.m. Monday at the church. Interment is in Fernwood Cemetery, Lansdowne.

Donations may be made to the Kim Denise Williams Health and Education Foundation, Box 28788, Philadelphia Pa. 19151.

bcook@phillynews.com

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