The 10th Annual Donald H. Smith Distinguished Lecture: “Is Freedom Enough?”
On Wednesday, November 16, 2005, Baruch College held its 10th annual Donald H. Smith Distinguished Lecture in the Conference Center. The lecture, entitled “Is Freedom Enough?” was delivered by Ronald W. Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland-College Park.
The master of ceremonies, Professor Stanton Biddle, celebrated the series’ 10-year history and the legacy of Professor Emeritus Donald H. Smith, one of Baruch’s first black administrators and still-active presence. President Kathleen Waldron noted Baruch’s diverse student body as something that has been described as “miraculous,” and said such recognized diversity, as well as the continuous need to build upon it, is “a fundamental part of what we value.” Professor Bobbie Pollard welcomed the audience with the Kemetic (ancient Egyptian) greeting – “Hotep!” – and introduced Walters with highlights from his extensive record of achievement.
“This is the 40th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” Walters began, stating the main reason for writing his recent book, Freedom Is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates, and American Presidential Politics. “The Voting Rights Act stands on the shoulders of the 15th Amendment,” said Walters, explaining that the Amendment prohibiting discrimination against voters is enforced by the Act.
Walters touched upon key moments in the Civil Rights movement, and spoke of Rosa Parks, whom he had personally met, describing her as a “generous personality but rock-steel underneath.” He traced a line from Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Walters credited the movement with further pressuring Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, and noted the closure of the racial gap in voter registration since 1965. “Have we achieved full citizenship?” he asked. “The question is still out.”
Turning to more recent politics, Walters observed: “We are disenfranchised nationally.” Walters further lamented the consistently low black voter turnout in New York City, saying: “We are not on the right track. We can’t afford to stay away from the polls.”
Walters pointed out that although those disenfranchised are disproportionately black, “whites are also disenfranchised,” and they therefore “have a stake in this.” His called for a strategy of getting “the right leadership in the right places,” which would lead to “the right policy…and the right return from the power we give politicians.” Concluding with both a prediction and a warning, he added: “Use that power well when it comes.”
Professor Arthur Lewin, in introducing Donald Smith, described the Civil Rights movement as “a second Civil War.” He noted that Smith “led the movement for equality” at Baruch, and that the diversity of New York City today “is the future of the country.”
Reflecting back on 10 years of past speakers, Smith celebrated that “this lecture series has featured some of the greatest minds of our country.” Noting that Walters was scheduled to address the Congressional Black Caucus the next day, Smith remarked: “Good luck, because so many of them are brain dead.”
Smith then spoke of the tragic 1985 confrontation between the communal MOVE group and the Philadelphia Police Department, resulting in the deaths of six adults and five children and the destruction of 62 row houses. Smith credited Walters with starting a tribunal that called for the removal of then-mayor of Philadelphia, Wilson Goode. “That’s the Ronald Walters I know,” he said.
During the Q & A, Walters was asked to what extent he sees a values debate going on in the country. “Democratic candidates are speaking about values in debates now,” he said. “The Democratic party is trying to prove it can be Christian, too. This is a mistake.”
It was proposed to Walters that the reason for poor black voter turnout was a poor choice of leadership, to which he replied that having poor choices is “no excuse” for not voting. “We all pay taxes…you opt out of the opportunity to determine how that money is used if you don’t vote.”
Asked how to compete with well-financed politicians, Walters stressed the importance of creating “political leverage” by forming political organizations. “This is the most group-conscious society,” he said, concluding with irony: “The same people tell you to be an individual.”
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Dr. Ronald W. Walters, Director of the African American Leadership Institute; Distinguished Leadership Scholar at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership; Former Adviser to Rev. Jesse Jackson; Professor, University of Maryland-College Park.