Late Civil Rights Leader Ron Walters Honored In His Hometown With New Branch Library
For this month’s In The Mix, Carla Eckels visits the new Dr. Ronald W. Walters Branch Library in south Wichita.
Activist and international scholar Ron Walters is mostly known for his achievements in academia. The late civil rights advocate, who died in 2010, wrote nearly a dozen books, was a fellow at Harvard, and taught at several colleges, including the University of Maryland and Howard University, where he has a Leadership and Public Policy Center named after him.
But even though Walters’ career took him around the country and around the world, his hometown of Wichita has not forgotten him: A new branch library named in his honor has its grand opening next weekend.
His widow, Patricia Turner Walters, was instrumental in helping name the Ronald W. Walters Branch Library. She wrote to the Wichita City Council urging it to name the new library in south Wichita for her husband; she included a letter from former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, whose name was also in the running. Brewer said Walters had been a stepping stone for him to becoming the mayor.
Patricia Walters said her husband would be honored to know a library has been named after him.
“Ron would be extraordinarily pleased there has been recognition of his achievements because his family roots are in Wichita," she said.
Ron Walters' lifelong activism began in his hometown: He was president of the Wichita NAACP youth council and organized a student-led sit-in at Dockum Drug store in 1958 to help end segregation. In a 2006 interview with KMUW, Walters said the students had trained for the sit-in and deliberately chose Dockum Drug store.
“Dockum was a part of a chain," he said. "And we felt that we could do something there in the heart of town that it might have a consequence."
After the success in Wichita, Walters went to Oklahoma in 1959 to help with a sit-in there, which lead to the more widely known 1960 sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Walters went on to attend Fisk University, a historically Black college in Nashville, Tennessee.
“I looked up to Ronnie, you know, he was my big brother, and I knew he loved me, and he spoiled us, and he was smart," his sister, Marcia Walters-Hardeman, said. "We knew he was smart, and he was going to college.
“I remember he and Daddy both had on white shirts, ties and slacks, because that's the way Black people traveled back then."
Walters graduated from Fisk with honors and earned his master’s and doctorate from American University in Washington, D.C. He later taught at Syracuse University, the University of Maryland and Howard University, where he was chair of the Political Science Department.
Walters was a fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard, Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign manager and advisor to the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. He also monitored the elections in South Africa toward the end of apartheid.
Patricia Turner Walters remembers a newspaper reporter describing her husband as a “One-Man Civil Rights Movement.”
Walters–Hardeman said even though her brother was widely known, he was unselfish when people greeted him as “Dr. Walters.”
"And he would probably say, "Oh, it’s Ron, and who are you?'" Walters-Hardeman said. "Because he was always interested in who you were. It wasn’t always about him."
Dr. Walters died in 2010 at the 72. His widow received letters from dignitaries including President Barack Obama, President Bill Clinton, and then-U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, who called Walters “A true American Hero.” Nelson Mandela called Pat Walters on the phone to offer his condolences and express admiration for her husband.
"He just wanted me to know what a special man Dr. Walters was," she said.
Ron Walters published 10 books, most of them about politics, including Black Presidential Politics in America: A Strategic Approach. The new branch library will feature most of the titles in a special section.
Walters-Hardeman said she's waiting to go inside the new library when her other family members arrive for the grand opening on Sept. 18th. Even so, she says she couldn’t resist driving by recently.
"I saw the library and it took my breath away, literally," she said. "I had to pull over in the parking lot and I cried because my brother loved this city so much.
"And then thinking about how my parents, how proud they would be, how proud they would be."