On Friday, Ron Walters, Ph.D., professor of political science at the University of Maryland passed away quietly after a long battle with cancer. While perhaps not nearly as famous to the mainstream as Cornell West, Skip Gates or Michael Eric Dyson, Walters was for many African American academics, politicians and me, personally, an inspiration and a shining example of the responsibilities one carries along with their education.
Walters was born in 1938 and attended Fisk University and received his master’s and doctorate degrees from American University in 1971. He was without a doubt one of the most prolific and respected writers on race in the United States, with over 100 publications to his name and more awards than even he cared to count. After working at Howard University for over 25 years he moved 45 minutes up the beltway to run the African American leadership Institute at the University of Maryland before retiring, in part due to his cancer battle.
He was a regular on political commentary shows in the 80s and 90s and helped create the groundwork for the formation of the Congressional Black Caucus. Dr. Walters is credited with starting one of the first sit-in protests in the United States in Witchita, Kansas.
But none of those reasons is why I am writing about Walters today. My reasons are simple and less well known, but I think epitomize the impact he had one so many people.
In the summer of 1996 I had pretty much decided that I wanted to run political campaigns as a career. As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia it’s hard not to catch the political bug, and with mentors like Larry Sabato teaching that “Politics is a Good Thing” and appearing on television every other week I saw a great career in consulting and punditry ahead of me. Of course, I never really knew if that work alone would really be satisfying or if just working on campaigns alone was enough to have a life that was personally as well as financially fulfilling.
That changed when I met Dr. Ron Walters. That summer I was in the Ralphe Bunche Institute, a program run by the American Political Science Association to encourage minority students to pursue doctorate degrees, especially in the social sciences. I was enjoying my summer but was pretty much unconvinced.
At the time academics came off like distant egg-heads to me, all theory and no practical knowledge. Dr. Walters ended up being one of our speakers and dinner guests at the Bunche Institute and my entire perspective on what you could do with a Ph.D. and the impact you could have on practical politics was changed.
Probably the most significant public achievement that Walters had in his career in most people’s minds was being the campaign manager for Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 Democratic presidential campaigns. Walters was in the thick of both of those races, strategizing, organizing and theorizing ways to make the impossible possible. While no slight to Shirley Chisolm, Jackson ran the first “impossible to ignore” campaign by an Black person running for president. He made the possibility of a Black president very real to all Americans and people across the globe, and he was able to do that in no small part due to Ron Walters.
I was captivated. For the first time in my life I met a Black man who was doing exactly what I wanted to do when I was older: make a way in the academic world and make a difference in real politics. At dinner Walters was funny, graceful and spent a lot more time answering questions about the campaign to this little group of college kids than he needed to. I was inspired by not only his commitment to his craft but to his sense of obligation to inspire and encourage others. In the harsh years of doctoral degree hazing that followed, my mind would occasionally wander back to Dr. Walters and I would remember that if he could get one in 1971 there was no way I was going to back down from any challenges I was facing almost 40 years later.
This week at the Congressional Black Caucus Conference I’m sure there will be a panel of people discussing in detail the great impact and value of Ron Walters’ life. While my story may not be as profound as some of those men and women on stage, I will clap as loud as anyone else. In celebration of a life not measured in sound bites or bestsellers but in the thousands of lives he touched and inspired.