What Ron Walters Would Ask of Journalists

Remembering Dr. Ronald Walters, the go-to expert for those writing about black politics.

Nikki Kahn/Washington Post
Nikki Kahn/Washington Post

Late Professor’s Colleagues Urge a Look at the Black Vote

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said she really got to know Ronald W. Walters when they worked on Jesse L. Jackson’s 1984 Democratic presidential campaign. “Jesse Jackson would have you join hands in prayer” when there was a problem, “but Ron Walters figured it out,” she told more than 700 people Sunday at a Howard University memorial service for Walters.

Then Waters mentioned a front-page story by Nia-Malika Henderson in Saturday’s Washington Post that reported, “In the past week, party leaders launched a drive to stoke enthusiasm among black voters, dusting off the president’s 2008 campaign logo, lingo and grass-roots strategy to get them to the polls in November.” It would call upon black elected officials to help whip up black voter enthusiasm for the fall election.

That posed a dilemma, Waters said, because when she raised with party leaders the need to target African Americans’ specific problems, “I was told that what was good for white America was good for black America.”

And yet African Americans were hit by the economic downturn in ways exponentially harder than was white America.

“I’m looking for Ron’s voice,” Walters said. “If I don’t hear from Ron, I’m not doing anything.”

Walters, author, scholar, professor, activist and political scientist, died Sept. 10 at age 72 from lung cancer. In addition to politicians such as Waters, many black journalists wondered who, if anyone, could take Walters’ place as the “go-to guy” on black politics.

“There is no replacement,” Robert C. Smith, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University, told Journal-isms during the repast at Howard’s Blackburn Center. But when asked what issue Walters would want journalists to follow, Smith had an answer: He pointed to Waters’ remarks.

“Can you mobilize people to do for you when you have done very little for them?” Smith said. The issues are, he repeated, “The effort to mobilize the black vote and a party that has been unwilling to address the concerns of black people.”

Smith was one of about 20 people chosen to speak at the Sunday service, where it was announced that Walters, most recently at the University of Maryland, had agreed to return to the Howard campus to teach in the fall semester.

Smith told the gathering that although Walters had produced books on politics from a black perspective, he had declined to write about himself. Therefore, Smith, who had worked closely with Walters and first met him 37 years ago, planned to do so.

“I’ve been trying to get him to do that for 20 years,” Smith said of his friend. “A political biography. Using his biography to trace the last 30 years of black politics. It is the story of post-civil rights-era black politics in America.”

One of the traits he most admired about his mentor, Smith told Journal-isms, was that “he knew how to help the reporters shape the story the way he wanted to. He knew how to give the appropriate media quote. Over the years, he developed that. That’s a skill.”

Walters was on both sides of the media line. He wrote political analyses for the Black Scholar and the old Black World/Negro Digest, and, later, weekly columns for the Washington Informer and the Richmond (Va.) Free Press that eventually were syndicated to other black newspapers through the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service. And he wrote “for free,” Denise Rolark Barnes, publisher of the Informer, told the crowd. “He believed in the black press.”

Barnes added that when she contemplated seeking a doctorate, perhaps in theology or African American studies, Walters advised remaining in her field and studying the media. “This new media is going to need someone like you to reach the new generation,” Barnes said Walters told her.

Along with Barnes, Joe Madison, the radio talk show host, represented the media during a three-hour program that featured speakers from various segments of Walters’ life. “Ron Walters was everybody’s political science professor,” Madison said. “TV, radio, print. He was erudite and simplistic. He taught us how to read with a third eye and listen with a third ear.”

Few knew Walters had been ill, Madison reminded the audience. Five days before he died, a Washington Post reporter called and those caring for Walters turned the reporter away. “He grabbed the phone and took the call and did the interview,” Madison said.

Asked where reporters could find a substitute for Walters on political questions, Mack H. Jones, professor emeritus at Clark Atlanta University, recommended the Web site of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, of which Jones was founding president and Walters a founding member.

Jackson, who delivered Walters’ eulogy on Monday, said at the repast that the message of Walters’ life for journalists is that “scholarship matters.

“We focus often on results. Results are the continuation,” he told Journal-isms. The facts have to be organized and have a framework and a context. The big picture counts, he said.

Walters was “a scholar-activist,” Jackson continued. Many people are one or the other. But “when you combine the two, you have a Martin Luther King,” he said, “or a Ron Walters.”

*Ruben Castaneda, Washington Post: Civil rights activist Ronald W. Walters remembered as ‘understated, but an overachiever’

*Ta-Nehisi Coates blog, the Atlantic: Condolences

*George E. Curry, National Newspaper Publishers Association: Ron Walters was a One-Man Civil Rights Movement

*Wayne Dawkins, PoliticsinColor.com: Another warrior with data departs, Ron Walters, 72

*Derrick Z. Jackson, Boston Globe: Ronald Walters — a pioneer on the politics of race

*Julianne Malveaux, Washington Informer: Ron Walters — A Scholar and a Gentleman

*Rep. Bobby Rush, the Hill: Dr. Ronald Walters: The W.E.B. DuBois of our time

*WRC-TV, Washington: Funeral Held for Civil Rights Pioneer Dr. Ronald Walters 

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