Lieut. Col. William Batts III was born in Texas in 1942 to Mattie Lee Jones and William Malcolm Batts. His father was a high school principal and his mother was a teacher, so the importance of education was instilled in Batts from an early age. He attended Prairie View A&M University for architectural engineering in the early 1960s. While at school, Batts found ways to participate in various social justice movements. He was the first Black officer in the Texas Intercollegiate Student Association and cofounded Students for Equality, Liberty, and Freedom (SELF). He was also named ROTC brigade commander for the 1962-63 school year.
Commissioned as a 2nd Lieut. in the Army Corps of Engineers, Batts embarked on a 22-year Army career. As an engineer officer, he served in Korea and Vietnam, earning the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. While stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Batts began to attend night classes at Austin Peay State University, working towards a law degree. He continued to work on that degree while assigned to Fort Eustis as post engineer in the early 1970s. At Eustis, Capt. Batts also elected to serve as a race relations officer in 1973, continuing his work as a social activist.
In 1975, upon entering his final year of law school, Maj. Batts was transferred from the Corps of Engineers at Fort Eustis to the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps at Fort Monroe. The transfer helped him to familiarize himself with the legal branch; however, he chose to leave active duty under the JAG Corps excess leave degree completion program. Batts would attend the College of William & Mary law school full time, returning to active duty during school vacations.
While completing his degree at W&M, Maj. Batts was named President of the Black American Law Students Association and served on the staff of W&M’s Colonial Lawyer journal. He also married Frances Ann Washington Tabb in 1977.
In 1983, Lieut. Col. Batts was named the president of the Old Point Comfort Kiwanis Club. He was believed to be the only active duty officer to head a Kiwanis Chapter in Virginia. His work with the Kiwanis Club was one of the contributing factors to his being named the 1984 Peninsula Military Citizen of the Year. The honor also cited his work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Peninsula Association for Sickle Cell Anemia. He retired from the Army in 1986.
In the 1990s, Batts continued to serve the community. He was chairman for the Newport News General Hospital Board from 1996-1998. In 1997, the general hospital was reported as one of only four Black-owned hospitals in the United States. Batts passed away two weeks after having been diagnosed with liver cancer in 1999 and is buried in Hampton Memorial Gardens.
The name William Malcolm Batts III is one still easily recalled in the local area. After coming across an article on his law school work in the Fort Monroe Casemate Chronicle, the story of the rest of his life unfolded through various local newspaper articles as well as school publications, such as William & Mary’s Colonial Lawyer and Prairie View A&M’s Panther. Reflected in these sources is a characterization of Batts as a Civil Rights activist. Upon his death in 1999, Steve Grobel, who had worked alongside Batts in the Army and later as a lawyer, remembered that he “sat in staff meetings and watched Bill, who was a major, go after the generals. He’d ask, ‘General, what is the Army doing to promote women and minorities?’ The general wouldn’t answer. But Bill wouldn’t let go.” There are people who continue to feel the repercussions of Batts’ social justice work today.
Fort Monroe Authority. “William Malcolm Batts III.” Illuminating Shadows, May 1, 2023. [access date]. [URL].