William Lester Banks was born in Lunenburg County, the son of William Walter Banks and Daisy Hill Banks. He had at least one sister. Banks attended public schools in Alderson in Greenbrier County and in Bluefield, both in West Virginia, and graduated from Bluefield State College with a major in physical science. From 1935 to 1941 he taught school and served as a principal in Halifax County. Later he became principal of Ruthville High School for African American students in Charles City County. On December 23, 1940, he married Vera Louise Bowman, of Charlotte County. They had one daughter.
Banks served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army during World War II and saw action in the Pacific. He began fighting for civil rights shortly before entering the army. In 1943, when he was a principal in Charles City County, he approached Oliver White Hill, an attorney working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), about the feasibility of filing suit to require that black and white schools receive equal public support. Banks and Hill were unable to pursue the idea because both men were drafted into the armed services shortly thereafter.
Banks’s commitment to the fight for racial justice had impressed Hill and other influential Virginians, and on April 1, 1947, Banks became the first executive secretary of the NAACP’s Virginia State Conference. During his tenure of nearly thirty years, Banks challenged segregation and racial discrimination in all spheres of American life and Virginia society. Sometimes he acted with others, but he soon won a well-deserved reputation for bravery because he was not afraid to act alone. On October 17, 1961, Banks was arrested for trespassing after he sought and was refused service in the “Whites Only” section of the privately operated Norfolk and Western Railway Company restaurant in Lynchburg. Two years later a white sawmill worker assaulted him when he staged a sit-in at the section reserved for white patrons in a restaurant in Charlotte County. By persistently refusing to sit apart from white attorneys in Virginia courthouses, an act for which local officials were reluctant to arrest him, Banks helped bring about the desegregation of Virginia’s courthouses. He often ventured courageously into hostile territory with “NAACP” emblazoned on the rear window of his car.
Banks devoted most of his efforts to the desegregation of public schools. His work, along with that of attorneys Oliver White Hill and Spottswood William Robinson, brought the legal resources of the NAACP to bear on the epic thirteen-year struggle to desegregate the public schools in Prince Edward County. The case of Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County was one of those that were considered along with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka by the U.S. Supreme Court in its unanimous 1954 ruling that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. Rather than accept desegregation, Prince Edward County officials voted in 1959 to close all public schools in the county, and they remained closed until 1964 when, in part because of the NAACP’s efforts, they were finally reopened.
Less conspicuous in public than Hill, Robinson, and some other civil rights activists, Banks worked constantly behind the scenes to advise and support the people who played the public roles. He was highly respected, and as much as almost any other Virginian of his generation he stood up for civil rights and fought for justice for all. In recognition of his pivotal work in the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century, the 1985 fiftieth-anniversary convention of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP was dedicated to Banks, who was by then retired, and in August 1992 the conference posthumously awarded him the Civil Rights Emancipation Emeritus Award. Banks’s experiences working behind the scenes and facing hostile crowds, together with his perception that conditions for African Americans in Virginia were gradually improving, persuaded him early in his career that patience, persistence, and nonviolence were his most effective weapons.
On December 31, 1976, when he was sixty-five years old, Banks retired as executive secretary of the Virginia NAACP. He remained a special consultant for several years after he retired, but his health gradually deteriorated. In 1977 he and his wife moved to California, where their daughter lived. Banks died of cardiopulmonary arrest as a result of chronic kidney failure on November 2, 1986, in Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood, California, and was buried in Inglewood Cemetery Mortuary.