Williams was born in Colón, Panama to parents Akin Jules William and Sharon Williams, who were both Panamanian. Juan graduated in 1972 from Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie, New York where he became clerk of the student body, editor of the student paper and was captain of the baseball, cross-country and championship basketball team. He attended Haverford College, from which he graduated with a baccalaureate in philosophy in 1976.
Some days after Williams wrote a column defending Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas against sworn testimony by Anita Hill charging sexual harassment by Thomas, it was revealed that several female employees of the Post had filed sexual harassment charges against Williams. The paper took disciplinary action against Williams and published an apology by him. On November 2, 1991, Williams wrote: "It pained me to learn during the investigation that I had offended some of you. I have said so repeatedly in the last few weeks, and repeat here: some of my verbal conduct was wrong, I now know that, and I extend my sincerest apology to those whom I offended."
Williams joined NPR in 2000 as host of the daily afternoon talk show Talk of the Nation. He then served as senior national correspondent for NPR. NPR's President and CEO Vivian Schiller requested that Fox stop identifying him as an NPR host in 2009 after Williams made the following comment on January 26, 2009, to Bill O'Reilly and Mary Katharine Ham, while appearing on Fox News' O'Reilly Factor: "Michelle Obama, you know, she's got this Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going. If she starts talking...her instinct is to start with this blame America, you know, I'm the victim. If that stuff starts coming out, people will go bananas and she'll go from being the new Jackie O to being something of an albatross". NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard maintained that: "Williams tends to speak one way on NPR and another on Fox."
NPR terminated his contract on Wednesday, October 20, 2010, two days after he made remarks on The O'Reilly Factor. He had commented, "Look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous." According to NPR, the remarks were "inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR." As to the reason for the termination of Williams' contract, NPR's President and CEO Vivian Schiller offered the following comment: "News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts..." On October 21, 2010, Schiller told an audience at the Atlanta Press Club that Williams' feelings about Muslims should be between him and "his psychiatrist or his publicist—take your pick." Schiller later apologized stating, "I spoke hastily and I apologize to Juan and others for my thoughtless remark."
Some observers have questioned whether NPR actually fired Williams for making the comments on Fox News, as opposed to making them in another forum.William Saletan of Slate.com compared the Williams situation to that of Shirley Sherrod, saying that both Sherrod and Williams had their words taken out of context in a way that made them appear racist and led to the loss of their jobs, except that Williams was victimized by liberals, rather than conservatives as in Sherrod's case. Saletan said that while Williams' confessed fears of Muslims were "unsettling", the context was Williams' argument that such fears should not be used to curtail the rights of Muslims or anyone else, and that Williams consistently argued that Muslims in general should not be blamed for the terrorist activities of Muslim extremists. NPR has been criticized by Williams and others for practicing a double standard in the firing, compared to their not firing Cokie Roberts, Nina Totenberg and other NPR reporters and analysts for their opinionated statements.
He has been a Fox News Contributor since 1997. He has appeared on Special Report with Bret Baier, FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace and regularly co-hosts The Five. He also regularly appears on The O'Reilly Factor and has served as a guest host in O'Reilly's absence. After NPR announced his termination from their network in October 2010, Fox News offered him a new $2 million (a "considerable" raise) three-year contract and an expanded role at their network that includes a regular guest-host role Friday nights on The O'Reilly Factor.
Following his firing from NPR, Williams appeared on The O'Reilly Factor and discussed his thoughts on how his role at Fox played into NPR's decision: "I don't fit in their box. I'm not predictable black liberal. You [O'Reilly] were exactly right when you said you know what this comes down to. They were looking for a reason to get rid of me because I'm appearing on Fox News. They don't want me talking to you."
Williams is the recipient of an Emmy Award for his work in television documentary writing and has earned critical praise for a series of television documentaries including Politics: The New Black Power, A. Philip Randolph: For Jobs and Freedom, Civil Rights and The Press, Riot to Recovery and Dying for Healthcare.
Williams' 1988 book, Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954–65, was written with the Blackside production team as a companion to the first season of the PBS series Eyes on the Prize. His 2003 book, This Far by Faith, is also a companion to a PBS series.
^My Soul Looks Back in Wonder: Voices of the Civil Rights Experience - By Juan Williams, David Halberstam - March 2004 - acknowledgments, page xv - "special thanks to my daughter Rae ...my son Antonio .. and my youngest son Raphael"