When I heard the news of the passing of Ron Walters, I reflected on his distinguished career as an activist scholar. My son Malcolm had the good fortune to have him as a mentor when he was a student at Howard University.
Although I haven’t seen Ron much in recent years, I treasure the times we talked about our common interest in African-American politics and the modern black liberation movement. He had deep roots in the movement, going back to his participation in the pioneering desegregation sit-ins in Wichita during 1958. As a scholar, he kept his focus on making his research useful to black leaders seeking progressive social change. His influence was most evident during the 1970s, when he offered sage (though often ignored) advice to black activists seeking to transform the “black power” slogan into political reality. One of the activists who accept at least some of his advice was Jesse Jackson.
When I was writing journalistic pieces about the Jesse’s 1984 presidential campaign, I interviewed Ron in his role as Jesse’s deputy campaign manager. The interview took place at the Democratic convention on July 20, the morning after we both watched Jesse deliver his extraordinary oration at the Democratic convention. Although Jesse and his supporters knew that the campaign had not succeeded in winning the Democratic nomination, Jesse’s emotional speech was a triumph, arousing the delegates with the vision of the rainbow coalition that become the basis for Jesse’s more successful 1988 campaign.
When we met, Ron was visibly exhausted from the pressures of the campaign and the convention, but I expected that he would be pleased with his role in a campaign that exceeded the expectations of most observers. What I observed instead was a sense of sadness. Ron seemed bothered that Jesse had secure unexpected non-black support by moving away from his initial emphasis on mobilizing the black electorate to pursue black racial interests. Rather than optimistic about the future of black politics on the national stage, Ron expressed skepticism about the possibility that a black politician could ever gain the presidency.
“I have to admit something to you; I just have to be honest about it. I am not convinced that the best thing for black people would be to have a black president. And the reason for that is I understand that the most important perspective here is not in judging the President, but often the Presidency. And by the Presidency I mean that you can be a very progressive person and wake up one day and find yourself in the Oval Office, and all of a sudden be faced with the proposition that you can’t do a damn thing, unless you deal with ITT, ATT, Department of Defense, on and on. You know what I mean? The large institutions in this country that have an impact on the Presidency and therefore shape the institutions that the President has to deal with to get things done. And the only way you can confront them by the force of your personality . . . You may be able to do combat. But we could wind up with the anomaly of having a black eunuch in the White House, someone who would be there, but, if he or she were progressive, would still be bereft of instruments to govern on our behalf. Or if they were not progressive, which is more likely the case. They’d be a total embarrassment. You have to come to grips in the midnight hour that the FBI, the CIA and all those people would not let a Jesse Jackson be President of the United States. That is just a fundamental thing you have to deal with sometimes when you’re just talking to yourself. White folks are not going to stand for that.”
I have read that Ron was elated by the election of Barack Obama, but I wonder how much his 1984 views affected his understanding the significance of Obama’s election and the possibilities of his presidency. I regret that I will never be able to ask him.