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Derrick Z. Jackson

Ronald Walters — a pioneer on the politics of race

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / September 18, 2010

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IN 1958, at age 20, Ronald Walters and his cousin organized a sit-in at a drugstore lunch counter in Wichita, Kansas. Three weeks later, the drugstore began serving black customers. Fifty years later, Walters cried with his wife on the night that Barack Obama was elected as president, the first African-American president in history.

“I never thought it would happen in my lifetime,’’ Walters told the Washington Times when Obama was inaugurated. “To most African-Americans, it’s just unimaginable.’’

Walters, who died last week at 72, spent his life imagining and shaping that possibility. He wrestled with American electoral history in a way that surely pushed the clock forward. He was a longtime professor at the University of Maryland and Howard University. A graduate of Fisk University, he also was a visiting professor at Princeton, a fellow at Harvard, and the first chairman of Brandeis University’s Afro-American studies department. He was an architect of the Congressional Black Caucus and a founder of the TransAfrica Forum policy think tank in Washington, D.C. But it was clear that he never forgot his sit-in days, always strategizing how everyday African-Americans could maximize voting political power.

One such poignant moment came in 1992, after Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton snubbed a $6 million African-American and Latino voter registration drive proposed by top black supporters. Massive criticism shamed the Democrats into a $3 million campaign. Walters was so incensed by the secondary treatment of the black vote that he told me, “I think blacks should show up in great numbers at the polls, and then they should boycott the top of the ticket. . . . If we threaten to withdraw our vote, then perhaps the candidate will finally begin to calculate our worth.’’

Clinton recalculated and became popular among African-Americans. But Walters wanted more. Harkening back to the 1980s as an adviser to Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns, he told the Associated Press, “it was hard for us, even in the Jackson campaign, to get our arms around this, the fact that there would be a black president of the United States, even though we were running.’’

But Walters’s theorizing back then about rainbow coalitions helped the nation get its arms around Obama. In his 1987 book, “Black Presidential Politics in America: A Strategic Approach,’’ Walters wrote that while electing a black president would require “many changes in the racial attitudes and practices of other Americans,’’ it was obvious “that the potential for a new political coalition exists.’’

Walters was clear then on something that is critical today. He said a black president was relatively less important “than upon securing substantive policy enactments. . . . Blacks have often accepted the symbolic rewards of political office rather than substance from the political system, and given the complex functioning of the institution of the presidency it is highly questionable that a black person would either be able or inclined to utilize the office of president to secure ethnic policy benefits.’’

Prophetically, Obama, handed the worst financial crisis in modern times and two wars, has struggled to articulate how general policies are benefiting disproportionately disadvantaged groups. After Obama’s election, Walters told the Trotter Group of African-American newspaper columnists, “I am hopeful this can be a return to the politics of human investment.’’

Until his dying breath, Walters urged Obama to make that investment. In one of his final columns for the black press this summer, he wrote of driving around construction projects in Washington and Silver Spring, Md., and seeing little evidence of stimulus money putting black people to work.

“While his administration has not done the most effective job of targeting those funds to the black community, it would appear to me that we should acknowledge that and go after the construction-related jobs ourselves instead of waiting for them to be delivered to our doorstep,’’ Walters wrote. Shaped by sit-ins, Walters’s greatest gift was his quest to get disempowered Americans to stand up.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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