Thursday, December 23, 2010

Dr. Ron Walters Passes the Torch



A few days ago, I was informed that, on September 10th of this year, while I was busy, busy, busy and paying little if any attention to the outside world, a preeminent leader and scholar, a lovely and humble man, and a man who affected me greatly in the short, but intense time we spent in each other's company, left me -- and the rest of us -- behind to muddle through without him in the world.

Dr. Ron Walters spent 25 years as a professor and chairman of the political science department at Howard University before going to the University of Maryland, where he directed the African-American Leadership Institute. He also taught at Syracuse and Princeton Universities, was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, a former member of the governing council of the American Political Science Association and a member of the Ralph Bunche Institute at City University of New York’s Graduate School and University Center. He played a principle role in both of Jesse Jackson's ground-breaking runs for the Presidency. He wrote a string of books and articles examining with elegant clarity such issues as how a Black Presidential campaign might be victorious (as it was while he was thankfully here to see his ideas successfully implemented). And he socially and intellectually reproduced himself for decades wherever he made an appearance to teach, to speak, to organize or to learn -- because he was always learning.

So, how did someone like me in the wilderness of Louisiana get to spend three-days straight with such a person? I was introduced to Dr. Walters on a poverty tour of the Mississippi Delta organized by Gathering of Hearts founders Antoinette Harrell and Inez Soto-Palmarin in February of 2009. It didn't really make a dent when I was told in passing he was going to be there. In all honesty, I didn't even know who he was and was only introduced when we were already in the SUV on the road.

Antoinette had engineered the five-hour trip north to make sure Dr. Walters, she and I would be riding in the same vehicle. And the more we talked, the more I realized I was in the presence of a truly great intellect, even without reading his bio first (which I most certainly would have done had I fully realized the position I was going to be in). The way it was, I wound up spending most of the next three days studiously nodding in silence, gasping with astonishment at his bold analysis and straight-forward statements, or running my mental legs off trying not to fall flat on my face in comparison -- often on live radio.

We were up late, rose early, went without breakfast, grabbed food as possible, stood interminably in the rain, and proceeded from one planned activity to another without pause or (it seemed at the time) consideration. Yet Dr. Walters, who was years older than me and was, I suspect now, already gravely ill, never complained, never flagged, never missed a cue to be attentive or reach out graciously to those we were "visiting," and never failed to amaze when the mic was live.

Not only did he rise to the occasion himself, but he inspired me to stay strong, focused and effective, as well. His public statements were so blatantly and urgently honest that they forced me to new heights of honesty and urgency myself, which as those of you who know me can attest, is really saying something. Now, knowing that he died of cancer less than two years later and knowing the kind of fighter he surely must have been, I cannot but imagine that he was already very ill, standing there in the rain, which serves to teach me yet another lesson in dignity and purpose even now.

In any case, others who knew him better than me have weighed in here and here and here (and believe me, that's not even the tiniest tip of the iceberg). The YouTube video above tells the story of how and how long ago he started his odyssey to model unflinching commitment to justice. And the YouTube video below demonstrates how elegantly and pointedly he addressed even the thorniest of questions. If after seeing this post, you want more, you may be interested in viewing a longer presentation he made at Florida Atlantic University last year.

Beyond that, I just want to say here that I am proud to have shared a moment in time, a car seat, and a microphone with this brilliant and exemplary man. I could not on my best day hope to hold up by myself the torch he has passed on, but together, you and I and all of us who believe as he did -- that it's not enough to ponder, one must face reality, tell the truth, and act to bring about change -- can do him proud.

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