Ronald Walters, 72; activist, scholar taught at Brandeis

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post / September 14, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Ronald Walters, one of the country’s leading scholars of the politics of race and a longtime professor at Howard University and the University of Maryland, died Friday of cancer at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md. He was 72.

Dr. Walters was both an academic and an activist, cementing his credentials with his early involvement in the civil rights movement. In 1958, in his hometown of Wichita, Kan., he led what many historians consider the nation’s first lunch-counter sit-in. Later, he became a close adviser to Jesse Jackson, serving as campaign manager and issues director in Jackson’s failed 1984 presidential campaign.

“Ron was one of the legendary forces in the civil rights movement of the last 50 years,’’ Jackson said Saturday.

Dr. Walters helped develop the intellectual framework of the Congressional Black Caucus in the 1970s. Some of his political ideas, such as comprehensive health care and a proposed two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, were viewed as radical. A quarter-century later, they are part of the intellectual mainstream.

Two decades before Barack Obama was elected president, Dr. Walters described the political steps an African-American candidate would have to take, in his 1987 book “Black Presidential Politics in America: A Strategic Approach.’’

In 2003, he predicted a resurgent white conservative movement in his book “White Nationalism, Black Interests: Conservative Public Policy and the Black Community.’’ When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Dr. Walters became a leading voice in highlighting the inequality that tarnished the bright edges of the American dream.

“Katrina kicked open a very historical door,’’ he said. “It showed us, for example, that poverty’s not gone in America and we’re not just talking about black poverty.’’

Beginning in the 1970s, Dr. Walters became known as one of the country’s foremost public intellectuals, with frequent appearances in the media as a commentator on public affairs. He was interviewed by Bill Moyers on PBS, commented on cable news shows, and wrote opinion columns for newspapers and magazines.

Ronald William Walters was born July 20, 1938, in Wichita. His father was a musician and had served in the military; his mother was a civil rights investigator for the state.

In July 1958, when he was leader of the youth council of the local NAACP, Dr. Walters and a cousin, Carol Parks, organized a sit-in protest of the Dockum drugstore in Wichita. Day after day, young African-Americans sat at the drugstore’s lunch counter, where they were refused service. The protesters sat in silence for hours at a time, enduring taunts from white customers.

Finally, after more than three weeks, the store owner relented, saying, “Serve them. I’m losing too much money.’’

In 1963, Dr. Walters graduated from Fisk University in Nashville. After being selected for a fellowship at the State Department, Dr. Walters received a master’s degree in African studies in 1966 and a doctorate in international studies in 1971, both from American University.

He taught at Syracuse University in the late 1960s and became the first chairman of Afro-American studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, before joining the faculty at Howard University in the early 1970s. He wrote his first books at Howard, and became chairman of the political science department.

In 1996, Dr. Walters moved to the University of Maryland, where he directed the African-American Leadership Institute and was a distinguished scholar at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership. His wife, Patricia Turner Walters, said Dr. Walters had recently agreed to return to Howard University as a senior research fellow and lecturer.