In an era in which political commentary is so often characterized by shallow sound-bites and shrill hyperbole, Dr. Ronald Walters’ scholarly insights helped shape nearly every advancement of black political empowerment of the last century.
In the mold of fellow Fisk University graduates W.E.B. Dubois and John Hope Franklin, Walters, who lost his battle against cancer in September at the age of 72, was one of the 20th century’s most important and influential scholar activists. A household name in African-American political circles, he combined his exceptional academic prowess with an unwavering commitment to civil rights and social justice. In the process, he, more than any analyst of his time, helped us understand the nexus of race, politics and policy.
Until his retirement last year, Walters was director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. He had previously taught at Georgetown, Syracuse, and Princeton, and chaired the African American Studies Department at Brandeis and the political science department at Howard University. In 1984 and 1988, he served as a principal architect of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns. Jackson called Walters “one of the legendary forces in the civil rights movement of the last 50 years,” and added, “Many of his ideas now make up the progressive wing of the country.”
Walters championed several of those ideas, such as comprehensive health care reform and a two-state solution for the Middle East crisis, long before they gained widespread mainstream acceptance. And in 1988, when Barack Obama was still a student at Harvard Law School, Walters’ book, Black Presidential Politics in America, won the Bunche Award for its superb analysis of what it would take to elect America’s first black president.
Dr. Walters earned a B.A. in history from Fisk in 1963. In 1966 he earned a master’s degree in African Studies, and in 1971 his PhD in International Studies, both from American University. Walters’ quiet demeanor belied a passionate and lifelong commitment to civil rights. His activist spirit was evident as early as 1958 when, as the 20-year-old president of the NAACP youth council in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas, he led a sit-in at Dockum Drug Store, which led to the desegregation of the drugstore chain. This act of civil disobedience occurred more than 18 months before the more highly publicized Greensboro sit-ins of February 1960.
A former advisor to Congressmen Charles Diggs, William Gray, and others, Walters helped establish the intellectual framework for the Congressional Black Caucus. CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) called him a “scholarly giant and…one of America’s most insightful analysts of the political landscape.” And former National Urban League President Vernon E. Jordan described him as “an indispensable part of the brain trust of the movement.”
We have lost a brilliant, principled, and pre-eminent scholar activist.