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Ronald W. Walters, the nation’s foremost scholar of the politics of race, was honored at a three-hour memorial service on Sunday at Howard University’s Cramton Auditorium. Approximately 700 people attended a Sunday afternoon viewing and celebration of Walters’s life and work before his Monday funeral and burial.
Although Walters, who died of cancer on Sept. 10 at age 72, was less of a household name some of the more famous figures who gathered to remember him, including the reverends Jesse Jackson Sr., and Al Sharpton, Vernon Jordan, and Dick Gregory, they made clear in their tributes that Walters was a true legend who’d in many ways helped pave the way for them.
In 1958, two years before the lunch counter sit-ins took place in Greensboro, N.C., a 20-year-old Walters, then president of his local NAACP chapter, organized with his cousin a sit-in at a drugstore lunch counter in their hometown of Wichita, which lasted for three weeks until the owner agreed to serve black customers.
Attempts to measure Walters’s life, work, accomplishments and meaning, Jordan said, would be like trying to empty the ocean with a thimble. “Something vast and noble has passed from among us. It is like a mighty oak has fallen, leaving an empty and gaping and glaring space against the sky where he stood,” he observed.
“He was our W.E.B. DuBois,” said Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, which Walters helped her create.
After graduating from Fisk University in 1963 with a degree in history and government, Walters earned a master’s in African studies and a doctorate in international studies from American University. He began his teaching career at Syracuse University in the late sixties, was a visiting professor at Princeton, a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and was the first chairman of Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University. Walters taught at Howard University from 1971 to 1966, serving for 15 years as chair of its political science department. Until his retirement last year, he was for 13 years the director of the American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland.
During the service, several Howard faculty members noted with bittersweet irony that before succumbing to his illness, Walters had agreed to return to the university this fall as a distinguished senior research scholar in the arts and sciences honors program.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland), who was taught by Walters, said, “We didn’t want to be like Mike, we wanted to be like Ron. He saw things in us that we did not see in ourselves.” Cummings and many others recalled that throughout his career, Walters worked tirelessly on the behalf of others, rarely saying no to any request for help, almost until the moment he died.
“What always came through with Ron was his bottom-line love for black people. That transcended artificial differentiations,” said Ricardo A. Millett, another former student who is now principal of Millett and Associates. “His focus was on solutions that addressed the breeches within and without that negatively affected our capacity to be whole, effective, cohesive and coherent as a community.”
Walters was instrumental in the formation of the Congressional Black Caucus, and served as a top adviser to Rep. Charles Diggs, the caucus’s first chairman. In 1977, he co-founded TransAfrica, an organization that helped lead the fight against South African Apartheid, and as a result was invited to serve on the Special Committee Against Apartheid of the Security Council of the United Nations. When Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1984, Walters served as his deputy campaign manager and debate advisor.
He was the author of 13 books, including White Nationalism, Black Interests: Conservative Public Policy and the Black Community, which predicted the sort of Tea Party insurgency taking place today. In Black Presidential Politics in America: A Strategic Approach, Walters mapped out a process for a black candidate to win a White House bid.
“Fifty-two years of activism,” said Jackson, who delivered the eulogy at Walters’s funeral service on Monday. “He never stopped.”