Lives Remembered

Ronald Walters (1938-2010): He refused to trade his dignity for lunch

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2010

Ronald W. Walters did not bring his lunch that spring day in 1958, and he didn't have a car to drive home from his new job in downtown Wichita. So he decided to walk over to the F.W. Woolworth drugstore to grab a bite. A 19-year-old college student at the time, Walters crossed the street and pushed open the door.

Wichita might as well have been the Deep South. Segregation was subtle, without many "whites only" signs. But people knew where to go and where not to go, knew where to sit and where not to sit.

If you were black and sat down in the wrong place, you might have waited for a long time, until a waitress finally arrived and said, "We don't serve Colored here."

Walters stood in line at Woolworth that day to order as the lunch counter bustled with the clang of plates, voices chattering, ice cubes in Coca-Cola. Whites sat on spinning stools covered by red vinyl. Black people stood and ate, or took their food home, banned from taking a seat.

Even then, Walters had a quiet, thoughtful reserve. He was a young scholar who would one day become one of the country's foremost authorities on race and politics, called upon by presidents and reporters for his insight. He would become a political science professor at Howard University; and then a professor, distinguished leadership scholar at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership, and director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland at College Park in 2009, when he would be named in retirement a professor emeritus.

"He had a great intellect," said his wife, Patricia Turner Walters. "He could take that intellect and could mesh it with an ability to organize."

Ron Walter's fingerprints were on many political achievements -- from the creation of the Congressional Black Caucus to Jesse Jackson's 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns -- but "the average person doesn't know that, because he operated behind the scenes," his wife said. "The movers and shakers understood."

Long before he achieved such influence, though, Walters mulled the segregated circumstances of the Woolworth lunch counter in Wichita and wondered why a person's dignity had to be exchanged for lunch.

"Looking at the whites seated at the counter, some staring up at us, I suddenly felt the humiliation and shame that others must have felt many, many times in this unspoken dialogue about their power and our humanity," Walters wrote later in a 1993 account of the protest. Black people were "excluded from the simple dignity of sitting on those stools."

At first, Walters decided that he would bring his lunch to work, "a quiet acquiescence" to the indignity. But a few days later, he decided he would confront segregation.

"It was like other defining moments in that era, the growing political consciousness within the black community, born of discrete acts of oppression and resistance," Walters wrote. "That consciousnes

told me that my situation was not tolerable, that it was time at last to do something."

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