Ronald W. Walters, one of the country’s leading scholars of the politics of race, who was a longtime professor at Howard University and the University of Maryland, died Friday of cancer at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. He was 72.
Dr. Walters was both an academic and an activist, cementing his credentials with his early involvement in the civil rights movement. In 1958, in his home town of Wichita, he led what many historians consider the nation’s first lunch-counter sit-in protest. Later, he became a close adviser to Jesse L. Jackson as one of the principal architects of Jackson’s two failed presidential campaigns.
“Ron was one of the legendary forces in the civil rights movement of the last 50 years,” Jackson said Saturday.
Dr. Walters also helped develop the intellectual framework of the Congressional Black Caucus in the 1970s. Some of his political ideas, such as comprehensive health care and a proposed two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, were viewed as radical. A quarter-century later, they are part of the intellectual mainstream.
“Many of his ideas now make up the progressive wing of the country,” Jackson said. “If it’s morally right, it can’t be politically wrong.”
Two decades before Barack Obama was elected president, Dr. Walters described the political steps an African American candidate would have to take in his 1987 book “Black Presidential Politics in America: A Strategic Approach.”
In 2003, he predicted a resurgent white conservative movement in his book “White Nationalism, Black Interests: Conservative Public Policy and the Black Community.” When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Dr. Walters became a leading voice in highlighting the inequality that tarnished the bright edges of the American dream.
“Katrina kicked open a very historical door,” he said. “It showed us, for example, that poverty’s not gone in America and we’re not just talking about black poverty.”
Beginning in the 1970s, Dr. Walters became known as one of the country’s foremost public intellectuals, with frequent appearances in the media as a commentator on public affairs. He was interviewed by Bill Moyers on PBS, commented on cable news shows and wrote opinion columns for newspapers and magazines.
“As an academic, journalist and crusader, he was in the tradition of W.E.B. DuBois,” writer and civil rights leader Roger Wilkins said Saturday. “He was a man who used his intellect and wisdom to make this a fairer and culturally richer country than the one we were born into.”
Ronald William Walters was born July 20, 1938, in Wichita. His father was a musician and had served in the military; his mother was a civil rights investigator for the state.
In July 1958, when he was leader of the youth council of the local NAACP, Dr. Walters and a cousin, Carol Parks, organized a sit-in protest of the Dockum drugstore in Wichita. Day after day, young African Americans sat at the drugstore’s lunch counter, where they were refused service. The protesters sat in silence for hours at a time, enduring taunts from white customers.