My Interview with Ronald Walters (1938-2010)

I chose to interview Dr. Ronald Walters after learning about his role in one of the first nonviolent sit-ins in this country in 1957 from Dr. Aldon Morris’ book The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing For Change. Walters cites being part of the NAACP Youth Council as a reason for choosing to stage a sit-in in a Dockum lunch counter in Wichita, Kansas. Ella Baker was instrumental in inspiring not only the NAACP Young Councils across the country that Dr. Walters was part of; she was also instrumental in inspiring the 1960 sit-in movement that followed Dr. Walters sit-in and produced the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I talked to Dr. Walters about why he was not part of the larger sit-in movement and later asked him to assess my master’s thesis which as you’ll read he thoroughly trounces. He finally mentions his role as a campaign manager in Jesse Jackson’s Presidential Campaign of 1984. Based on the votes of Congressional Black Caucus members mentioned in my thesis since Obama’s inauguration, Dr. Walters’ assessment of my thesis I think has proven correct. His analysis and perspective is greatly missed. This phone interview took place on October 16, 2006. I was and am incredibly grateful for his time. Rest in peace, Dr. Walters. –RF.

FRASER: My first question is about your class background. You talk in the book African American Leadership about the importance of the factor of class. Could you describe your own personal class background, and what class background you were raised in America?

WALTERS: I am from a working class family in Wichita, Kansas. Born in 1938. The 1930s was a period where the aircraft industry…was the main employer of working class blacks. I shouldn’t say the main employer because the main employer was the low income jobs, and people were working as janitors and yard caretakers in peoples’ homes. So if Blacks wanted the stable jobs, they had to work for something like the post office or the aircraft industry. Boeing was the main employer of African Americans. The fortunes of the Black community pretty much rose and fell depending upon whether or not Boeing had a contract. When they did have a contract people worked, when they didn’t have a contract people were laid off. My dad was a military man. And he came out of the Army from the McConnell Air Force Base as a civilian employer, as a clerk. So he had a stable job. He was also a musician. So he played music on the weekends. So my family more or less had a stable income. My mother did work and we were part of a large extended family that offered all kinds of support. I was the first child in the second generation and I therefore had kind of a special status. So the fact that we were working class or poor…was somewhat beside the point because my upbringing was one in which I had free reign on a very large extended family. And a lot of things went along with that.

FRASER: Like James Lawson [who] was the first child of…four boys altogether…you talk about the support of the extended family and being the first child seems to be a factor in working in the movement…my next question is about your time in the sit-in at the Dockum store in Wichita, Kansas [in 1957]. And you said in an article called “Standing Up in America’s Heartland:” “No flash of insight led me to confront this humiliation. 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. That consciousness told me that my situation was intolerable. That it was time at last to do something.” My question is: could you talk about that consciousness that led you to do what was maybe the very first sit in the country? [Belinda Robnett in her book How Long? How Long? writes of a Howard University student named Ruth Powell leading an earlier sit-in, in 1948]

WALTERS: Well you know this is a very important question that I as a scholar have puzzled over. For many years. Finally I had the opportunity to describe [this] in a piece I did for a law journal. This was the Washburn University Law School Journal. And…they asked me to come back and do a keynote speech for a conference they were doing for the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education a couple of years ago. I said to myself: what I would like to do in this paper is to look at the various sources that were responsible for the development of Black political consciousness that actually lived. I wasn’t so much concerned with Brown as I was concerned with this question. That has multiple answers here. So first of all, let me say that I [started] with oppression of Black people. You have to start there. Most people don’t understand that in the 1930s and 40s that the oppression of Black people was rife, where there’s still pockets of slavery in the United States. That’s the first thing and I’m partial to slavery because I’ve had a graduate student who’s been looking a year now at documents that Blacks are writing to the NAACP talking about we’re still not being paid and the last case the Justice Department prosecuted about chattel slavery was in 1950. So that reality is on the ground. There were Blacks in the South that were beginning to rebel to the point where some social scientists believed it may be a national race riot given that situation. So start with the race thing. Secondly, second world war. Coming out of the second world war, you had a very interesting institution like the United Nations. It promulgated a set of humanitarian values that were very important to Black people: self-determination…and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for example. Now these things, all of them…as early as 1941…Roosevelt and Churchill sat out on that boat in the Atlantic and [endorsed] the Four Freedoms that those two thought would carry on going into World War II. The Four Freedoms were not meant to apply to Black people. And so it is very interesting that W.E.B. Du Bois and these people say “yes they do” so we will write some tomes and some of them we will deliver to the United Nations, when it was finally formed talking about how people fit into these new values that were coming out of the war. So that’s a big one. Now the third one is the international scene. The Cold War. The United States was embarrassed, because it was all of a sudden faced with the Soviet Union. And the Soviet Union was saying, well since our revolution in 1917, we have been trying to pursue a non-racial line and yet you [the U.S.] have racial discrimination among Black people in your country. So which one of us should have plane to be a world leader? American diplomats backed the United States in saying we have a tactical problem here. We’ll get beat up in international forums by these people because racial discrimination is a problem in the United States, so we have to do something about that. That’s another stream. All of a sudden there was pressure in the U.S. government. Within the elite, they began to think about doing something about racism. Another one had to do with the Roosevelt legacy. 1948. Democratic convention. First of all you had the Roosevelt legacy. Then as a result of that it affected the Democratic Party to the extent that at the 48 convention, Hubert Humphrey said, ‘we’ve got to put the first plank in our platform having to do with non-discrimination.’ Well that was elected. The Dixiecrats bolted the election. Strom Thurmond led them out. Formed their own party. And Strom Thurmond ran for president. That was a signal moment because it told Blacks the Democratic Party just might be willing to hear them out…These things were going on in forties and thirties and readily build sort of backdrop slowly but steadily for the political consciousness that emerged in the post war period. The Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court decision was the match that ignited all that. Because what that said to Black people was that ‘hey, we’re on the right side of history.’ So if the Supreme Court said we’re on the right side of history, then we must be. We got validation for that. So lets now take the next step and begin to knock down these walls. So that’s where that consciousness came from. A deep and abiding resentment of the oppression of Black people. But it built…to the point where I just felt when I was working downtown in Wichita, Kansas, I saw Black people lining up behind a board. To get their meals. That was wrong. There had to be something done about that. So we began to plan, an NAACP Youth Council, to break it down. The Civil Rights Movement is important in the stream of things because you had the Montgomery Bus Boycott…from 1955 to 1957 but what I point out on this piece is that Brown versus the Board of Education focused on Kansas. Right next door you had the Little Rock Crisis. Central High School. Right next door. So you had to two or three things there in the mid 1950s that were extremely important. You had the Brown decision. You had the maturation of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and you had the crisis of school integration right in our neighborhood. There’s no way you could escape that. So those three things right in our neighborhood.

FRASER: Thank you. I talk about venues of nonviolence and I argue in my thesis that the U.S. House is a venue of nonviolence. I characterize Barbara Lee’s vote against the war in 2001, September 13th as a significant act of nonviolence that I compare with Rosa Parks refusal to give up her seat in December 1955. I compare Daisy Bates’ work with the Little Rock Nine to Congressman Chaka Fattah’s turnaround of the Philadelphia Public Schools over the past five years so I’m just covering similarities within the past five years of Congressional Black Caucus members, comparing them to nonviolent activism…in the late fifties and early sixties. Please assess the argument as to whether the House is a venue of nonviolence. And I remember reading in your book African American Leadership where you talk about Maxine Waters who in 1997 led a protest against the House subcommittee when they were threatening to end Affirmative Action. So could you talk about the ways in which the U.S. House can be a venue of nonviolence, continuing the nonviolence that was from the movement?

WALTERS: Well, I don’t think nonviolence characterizes the story because nonviolence would have more I think of a value, in the conceptualization of your paper, if it were in the nonsystemic realm. Which is to say, if it were not in the institutions of American government. King practiced nonviolence outside the American political system against the American political system. When you go within the American political system, it is by definition not nonviolent. That’s its whole character. So to characterize someone within the system doing nonviolence doesn’t give you much analytical power. Because that is the nature of the arena. So that to say Barbara Lee did something that particular of a nonviolent nature doesn’t characterize it correctly, because that is the nature of the entire arena. That’s why that arena was established in the first place. To give people a nonviolent way. They call it a civil way of taking a political position. So you don’t get much credit for that. For the nonviolent aspect that is. I don’t see what that adds to the analysis. Because that is the nature of the House.

FRASER: Do you think that it is significant, the vote against the war and the invasion in 01?

WALTERS: Yes, that was an act of courage on her part. Totally an act of courage. But it had very little to do with nonviolence. That’s the point I’m making. Because nonviolence really is the character of the political system in which she acted.

FRASER: Very good. Describe if you could your arrival at Fisk and American Universities and how eventually you worked for Charles Diggs and William Gray.

WALTERS: Well I arrived at Fisk really as a result of the sit-in. An interracial organization in my city, a progressive Black and white one, gave me a fellowship to go down to Fisk in the summer of 1959, to attend the Race Relations Institute which was a very popular institute and it was started by Professor Charles Johnson…and when he died it was being run by his son. And I went down there and was just bowled over by the Institution which was [full of] historical culture of Black people. And I had never been to anything like that before in my life. I decided to go back. In 1960. I had spent one year and a half at Wichita University. And so I transferred and I was very successful at Fisk. John Lewis was my classmate. Diane Nash, some of these people were all involved in the Nashville movement. Jim Lawson was down there. And the people were coming through all the time. And Nikki Giovanni was there. So it was a rich group of people there. I didn’t become as involved in SNCC then because for one I took umbrage of the fact that they started the sit-in movement and I said, ‘what is this? Not really.’ And secondly, they placed sort of a religious barrier in my way. I was very strong in the religious. But they were connected in some way to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which was heavily religious, heavily Southern, charismatic. Well, my mother was Episcopal. And so I tried to go in that direction. And that didn’t connect as well with the civil rights movement.

FRASER: They were more charismatic rather than according to the Episcopal tradition?

WALTERS: That’s right. And so there was a deep Southern culture involved in that. And many became a part of that for movement purposes and I didn’t quite fit in. And so, I spent a lot of time supporting movement from this [academic] side. I became very involved in student government. Vice president of student government. President of Kappas. And I was an ‘A’ student. Graduated with a fellowship to Columbia University. Another fellowship to American University. I selected American University because I was excited by John F. Kennedy and his coming into office, his wanting to do something having to do with African Americans. And at least one person came to campus seemed to solidify that for me: Senator Rockefeller. The young man. A Kennedyite. He was going around the country, talking on college campuses for Kennedy. He came to Fisk and I was just inspired by the Kennedys. And so I wanted to come to Washington and saw trip through a fellowship to American University. So that’s how I got there. My major was African studies. And I got an M.A. in African Studies and a Ph.D. in International Studies. And my main discipline was Comparative Politics. Politics allowed me then to look at national political systems. And that’s how I got involved in African American politics. First job, Syracuse University. Second job, Brandeis. I became founding chair of Afro-American Studies. And the students there wanted more African American politics, so I teach it. And so I’ve carried these two fields all my life. African American politics, political science. Boston University was alive, involved in the movement in those days. Black Studies was just starting and became one of the principal pursuits and the keeping all the Black students. So it was quite a period.

FRASER: Yes it was. Could you describe how you became an advisor for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign?

WALTERS: Well in 1983 I was invited to a meeting at Howard University. And they were looking into the possibility that Jesse would run. And they asked me if I would consider briefing him on public policy. Because they thought he could win. And I said well I have to think about that. I’m not hot about Jesse across the board. He’d come to Howard when I was Political Science Chair at Howard since 1971. I left Brandeis and went to Howard. And he came to Howard a couple of times to speak and I crossed words with him. I wasn’t that enamored. But in any case I had become a little bit closer to him because that spring, this is the spring of 83, I was part of a group that Walter Fauntroy put together called the National Black Leadership Forum. I was secretary. The question came up, this was a group of…national black organizations, and I have a chapter on the Black Leadership Forum in my book African American Leadership, whether or not [we could have a] Black presidential campaign. So what I did was a survey of leadership to see if this was feasible, and the answer came back yes. So then I was invited to the Black Leadership Forum. The Forum is a group of heads of twenty five national organizations. The group that Fauntroy founded was the Roundtable which was the largest of heads of national Black organizations. I was secretary of the Roundtable. But I was invited to a meeting of the Forum in the spring of 83 and there they wanted to take up the idea of a Black Presidential Candidate. And I was invited to present a survey. And so I made my report, they discussed the issue, and they decided that yes, there should be a National Black Presidential Campaign. They didn’t say who was going to do it. Obviously the presumption was that Jesse might…He said ‘come out and go with me.’ So I hung out with him after that meeting. And I had a chance to talk to him. And we developed a comfort zone. But that was a very important meeting. Because that meant that at least some of the members of the National Black organizations had approved of a campaign, knew it was going to happen and so forth, so I came in that fall to the meeting…and I finally decided that I would be one of the briefers. But the other person was Hank Richardson. Two of us were his main briefers. In the Fall of 1983. In January as the campaign kicked off, he asked if I would be the deputy campaign manager. And I did it without any salary. The whole campaign. While teaching at the same time. Jumping on and off planes. Very costly. But in any case, that’s how it happened.

FRASER: Thank you very much.

PHOTO OF WALTERS COURTESY OF EVAN VUCCI, AP.

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Author: Dr. Rhone Fraser

Dr. Rhone Fraser is an independent writer and journalist born of Jamaican immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1979. He moved to Florida in 1989 and graduated from Zephyrhills (FL) High School in 1997. He graduated from Yale University in 2001, after which time he taught in the public school systems in New Haven (CT) and the Bronx for three years. He then began writing independently and finished a documentary play on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer entitled, "Living Sacrifice," for which he still seeks publication. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple as of August 31, 2012. His dissertation was a literary and historical analysis of Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. He also is a freelance editor and radio producer, and is currently producer of WPEB's Freedom Readers on 88.1 FM in Philadelphia.