Ronald W. Walters and the Fight for Black Power, 1969-2010.
Robert C. Smith.
State University of New York Press, 354 pp., $34.95.
Reviewed by Todd Steven Burroughs
Dr. Ronald Walters presenting at the “Africana @ 40” Conference in 2010 at the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University
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One day, on an anniversary too soon from now, Black activists will sit around a public, symbolic campfire and tell the story of a Black intellectual who decided that being a Black nationalist and a Pan-Africanist was more important than being accepted by his white scholarly peers. They will talk about him being the Black nationalist border to the lily-white American political frame. They will talk about his many attempts to unify Black people over decades, and his unceasing work to aid Black national political development both theoretically and practically. They will talk about how Howard University fed him spiritually but did not treat him properly. Ultimately, they will tell of his being courageous, of being unafraid of a publicly visible, consistent failure to create a sustainable Black political organization.
C-SPAN might be there to cover the campfire event, but few other media will bother. And the young Black political scientists at this gathering will praise him to the hilt, recording themselves doing so for YouTube and Facebook, and then go off to do much more well than good.
The Black political scientist Ronald W. Walters was, in the words of his biographer, an intellectually complex foe of “intellectual colonialism” and an “unshakable advocate of unity.” He was a former(?) Black Power radical who decided, post-Black revolution, that he was going to push the Black political mainstream as far into the radical camp that it would go. He was a Black nationalist who believed in American principles and, ultimately, using the power of American democracy and human morality to push white people into civilized thought. He was determined to bend white supremacist reality toward Black revolution, using such vehicles as the 1970s National Black Political Convention/Assembly and other organizations. At one point, he wanted a kind of a national Black Parliament—a group that could decide and implement policy independent of the white gaze. After he concluded that the white elite had more power over Black leadership than any Black people did, he shouldered on anyway, spending his last years fighting for Black reparations, still a very unpopular topic with those in power. Along the way, he met dark preachers, journalists, poets, congresspeople, future presidents of South Africa and younger Black American political scientists, and attempted to help them all.
Smith, professor of political science at San Francisco State University and long considered one of the nation’s top Black political scientists, charts all of Walters’ strategies, everything from attempting a national Black political party to being a close advisor to the Rev. Jesse Jackson in his 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns. Walters’ thoughts on Barack Obama, sadly, remain under-developed because of his 2010 death at the age of 72. But the pioneering intellect left us a turn-of-the-century study of white nationalism that is as current as the evening news.
If the mentor Walters is the eternal-but-cautious optimist, his protégé biographer is a stark realist, seasoned strong with skepticism, if not outright pessimism. Although he is sympathetic to Walters’ unsuccessful campaigns, Smith makes sure to shake the reader awake from Walters’ political dreams. Smith gets high marks for being unafraid to criticize not just his beloved subject, but other scholars that he cites or mentions.
Smith said the book went to more peers than normal, but this writer wished the author also sent it to a SUNY Press copyeditor who would have double-checked the spelling of names: future printings should fix embarrassing errors such as “John Henry Clarke” (183), “Glen Loury” (227), “History Makers” (22), “Cornell West (235),” and even “Malcom (X)” (52). The national Black radio syndicate is American Urban Radio Networks, not “Urban Public Radio.” And for the record: the name of Walters’ Black newspaper column syndicator is the National Newspaper Publishers Association (8, 238); this reviewer knows this because, as a NNPA copyeditor employed there at the turn of the last century, he used to copyedit Walters’ columns. Simple, thirty-seconds-online-check-tops drudgery, left undone, that clearly mars the professionalism of this study, if not its great authority.
This political biography’s intellectual dissecting should be seen as a definitive roadmap to the future of American-based Black nationalist and Pan-African political development, and Walters, if he were not in the Realm of the Ancestors, would struggle in 2018 to see this book in that exact, positive way. He would also be determined to see the never-ending Black Twitter chat, the many marches and protests, and the overall resistance to Trump as proof his lifetime of work attempting to unify the Black community could, if not would, survive and thrive in his very notable absence. But Smith knows that commitment to the Black community is total and consistent, and not based on typing (including reviewing books for Black radical websites), anger against fascism and white supremacy being en vogue and/or whether MSNBC agrees with you. Walters, the consummate insider-outsider, knew this, too, and, regardless of his public contradictions, lived and died heroically from that historical approach.
Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., is an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J. He is the author of Warrior Princess: A People’s Biography of Ida B. Wells, and Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates, both published by Diasporic Africa Press. His 2014 audiobook, Son-Shine On Cracked Sidewalks, deals with the first mayoral election of Ras Baraka, the son of the late activist and writer Amiri Baraka, in Newark.