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Scholar Ronald W. Walters led what is considered to be the first lunch-counter sit-in

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2010; C01

Ronald W. Walters, one of the country's leading scholars of the politics of race, who was a longtime professor at Howard University and the University of Maryland, died Friday of cancer at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. 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 home town of Wichita, he led what many historians consider the nation's first lunch-counter sit-in protest. Later, he became a close adviser to Jesse L. Jackson as one of the principal architects of Jackson's two failed presidential campaigns.

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

Dr. Walters also 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.

"Many of his ideas now make up the progressive wing of the country," Jackson said. "If it's morally right, it can't be politically wrong."

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.

"As an academic, journalist and crusader, he was in the tradition of W.E.B. DuBois," writer and civil rights leader Roger Wilkins said Saturday. "He was a man who used his intellect and wisdom to make this a fairer and culturally richer country than the one we were born into."

Early days

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."

The Wichita sit-in and a similar one in Oklahoma City occurred almost two years before the more famous lunch-room sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., but received little publicity at the time. It was not until 2006 that Dr. Walters received a belated medal from the NAACP for his quiet but effective act of civil disobedience in Kansas.

"You gain your authenticity through the risks you take," Jackson said Saturday. "He stood up. He marched. He was both scholar and activist."

In 1963, Dr. Walters graduated from Fisk University in Nashville, where two of his intellectual heroes, DuBois and historian John Hope Franklin, had studied in earlier years. Dr. Walters also sang tenor in Fisk's famed Jubilee Singers.

After being selected for a fellowship at the State Department, Dr. Walters received a master's degree in African studies in 1966 and 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 chairman of Afro-American studies at Brandeis University in Boston before joining the faculty at Howard University in the early 1970s.

He wrote his first books at Howard, became chairman of the political science department and was busy with many outside projects. He worked as a top adviser to Rep. Charles Diggs (D-Mich.), the first chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. He participated in summit meetings of black executives, political leaders and scholars and in 1977 was a founder of the TransAfrica Forum, a group that led the fight against South African apartheid and sought to improve conditions in Haiti.

During Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign, Dr. Walters was a confidant of the candidate, as well as a street-level political operative.

"He was on the ground with us, going through it with the great unwashed, including me, to reconcile the tensions that existed between elected officials," former Prince George's County Executive Walter K. Curry said Saturday.

In 1996, Dr. Walters moved to the University of Maryland, where he directed of 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.

In addition to his wife, of Silver Spring, survivors include three brothers, Duane Walters of Atlanta, Terrence Walters of Oklahoma City and Kevin Walters of Bowie; and two sisters, Marcia Walters of Austin and Sharon Walters of Atlanta.

Dr. Walters had recently edited a book about D.C. politics, "Democratic Destiny and the District of Columbia" and was at work on a book about Obama at the time of his death.

In an essay in January, Dr. Walters defended Obama's record in the face of criticism from the left and the right.

"I think that the pundits and the public should face up to one fact," he wrote. "The mess that President Barack Obama inherited will not be fixed in one year, or two or possibly even during his entire term.

"The media works on a timeframe of instant results. . . . If George Bush had been as criticized and interrogated as much as Obama, perhaps the edifice of problems that now challenge the very viability of America might have been stopped."

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