Civil rights activist Ronald W. Walters remembered as 'understated, but an overachiever'

Mourners gather at Howard University to pay tribute to a pioneering 'philosopher-king.'
By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2010

Nearly two years before the famous sit-ins to protest segregation at lunch counters in Greensboro, N.C., Ronald W. Walters and a cousin organized sit-in protests of a drugstore lunch counter in his home town of Wichita.

Many people don't know about the 1958 Wichita protests, which ended when the store owner agreed to serve black diners. But to the lions of the civil rights movement who gathered Sunday in Cramton Auditorium at Howard University to honor Walters, his place in the pantheon of movement giants is secure.

"Two years before Greensboro," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said. "He was a philosopher-king. Fifty-two years of activism. He never stopped."

"He was the preeminent scholar-activist," the Rev. Al Sharpton said.

Jackson and Sharpton were among the more than 700 people who attended a memorial service for Walters, who died Sept. 10 of cancer at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. He was 72.

Walters was one of the country's leading scholars of the politics of race, as well as a well-known civil rights activist, academic, political analyst and author.

The service was held at the university that Walters joined in the early 1970s as a member of the faculty. He became chairman of the political science department and was an astute observer of national and local politics.

In 1996, Walters moved to the University of Maryland, where he directed the African American Leadership Institute. Throughout Walters's career in the Washington area, journalists often went to him for analyses and quoted him on political campaigns in the District and suburban Maryland. Walters was planning to return to Howard this fall.

Walters wrote or co-wrote eight books. His 2003 book, "White Nationalism, Black Interests: Conservative Public Policy and the Black Community," predicted the resurgence of a white conservative movement.

Sharpton said in an interview that Walters resisted any temptation to commercialize his expertise. Walters never appeared on political cable TV shows that sometimes devolve into shout-fests, Sharpton said.

"He kept it serious," Sharpton said. "He wrote for history. He was understated, but an overachiever. He won't be easily replaced."

Among the speakers at the memorial were Vernon Jordan, who served as a close adviser to President Bill Clinton, and Hazel O'Leary, energy secretary during the second Clinton administration and now president of Fisk University in Nashville, where Walters received his undergraduate degree.

Joyce A. Ladner, former interim president at Howard, told the crowd that Walters's wife, Patricia Turner Walters, typed and edited his work and became an integral part of her husband's literary accomplishments.

She was "not the woman behind him, but the woman beside him," Ladner said.

Some of Walters's ideas, which in the late 1970s and early 1980s seemed radical to some, have become part of mainstream political thinking. Walters championed universal health care and proposed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue decades before those ideas gained currency in mainstream political discussions.

Walters's funeral is scheduled for Monday at Shiloh Baptist Church, 1500 Ninth Street NW. The public viewing is at 10 a.m., and the service is to begin at 11, with Jackson delivering the eulogy.

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