(NNPA)—Ronald Walters, the highly-respected political scientist who died last week of cancer at the age of 72, exemplified the true meaning of a public intellectual. To many, the term public intellectual regretfully has become synonymous with selfish private advancement, largely through the writing of books that lead to appearances on television that lead to numerous high-priced speaking engagements and lofty appointments in academia.
Ron Walters, on the other hand, used his intellect to disturb the status quo, to advocate for Africans and African-Americans with no thought of enriching himself. The scholar-activist followed in the rich tradition of fellow Fisk University graduates W.E.B. DuBois and John Hope Franklin. Ron’s activism took on many forms. He was issues adviser to Jesse Jackson during his 1984 and 1988 presidential bids. Over the years, he sat quietly in the background as members of the Congressional Black Caucus executed strategies he had devised to advance the interest of Blacks. Not only did he advise African-American leaders and elected officials, he spent many hours—at no charge—speaking to community groups.
I led a crusade to force Ron to start charging for speaking engagements. He and I were serving on a panel at Columbia University years ago and, in passing, he mentioned that he had agreed to serve on the panel for only expenses.
“Ron, I am getting paid and they are taking care of my expenses,” I told him. “And others on this panel are getting paid. You must stop letting people exploit you like this.” I told him that if universities could pay thousands of dollars to rappers, they could afford to pay for his exceptional intellect. A couple of months later when I saw him, Ron told me he had learned his lesson. That wasn’t surprising because Ron was always a quick study.
Ironically, the last time I saw Ron, less than a year ago, was when we were both serving on a panel discussing politics at the New Carrollton, Md. public library; it was sponsored by the Prince Georges County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). And, yes, we participated in the event for free. Even though Ron was finally charging for speaking engagements—but not at the $15,000-plus level most public intellectuals receive—he never stopped giving to community groups that could not afford to pay him anything.
There was a fun side to Ron as well. One of the hottest tickets in the nation’s capital was an invitation to the annual Christmas party that Ron and his wife, Pat, gave each year in their Silver Spring, Md. home. It was a time of great discussion with old and new friends, good food and plenty of laughter. Whenever I was in town, I made it a point to attend.
Ron was a brilliant low-key brother who preferred to focus on issues, not personalities. In fact, it wasn’t until February of this year that many of us learned about his youth activism. And that was because he was responding to a column I had written during Black History Month.
“My friend George Curry reminded me of something in his article on ‘Being True to Black Historymakers’ when he said that in this year when we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro Sit-in that we must remember that ‘they were not alone.’”
Ron continued, “It is true that these students were not alone because in August of 1958, those of us in the NAACP Youth Council of Wichita, Kansas targeted the lunch counter at the Dockum Drugstore in the heart of town for a sit-in demonstration because they, like so many other establishments, did not let Blacks eat there. After about six weeks of sit-ins that drew 20-40 young participants, we successfully desegregated not just Dockum Drugs, but the Rexall chain of drugstores in that state.”
What Ron deliberately left out of the column was that he was the leader of that sit-in movement in his hometown.
Ron Walters was a strong, consistent and unapologetic voice for African-Americans and Pan-Africanism. In fact, one of his e-mail addresses was firstname.lastname@example.org. He was a strong proponent of developing a Black Agenda, even in the age of Barack Obama.
In one recent column, Ron ticked off a series of issues that he said should be included in the Black agenda: health disparities, police brutality, equal access to education, voting rights enforcement, access to credit, racial profiling, ex-offenders voting rights, housing and equal employment.
“It is the task of modern civil rights organizations to make the demand that equality be achieved, that fairness be the rule of conduct of all American institutions,” he wrote. “It is their role to demand closure of the gaps in civil and human rights, even though much of the technical and political work is carried out by our elected leaders. It is their job to mobilize Black people and our allies, to influence institutions to behave in ways that honor our citizenship and humanity in the 21st century.”
By that definition, Ron Walters was a Civil Rights Movement by himself.
(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator and media coach. He can be reached through his website, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.)