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The news of Professor Williams’ passing came as a jarring blow, an unexpected loss in a year of tenacious tragedies. It is our loss, of course, and most especially for Dr. Williams’ loved ones and friends, all of whom remain in our prayers. I wasn’t privileged enough to have met him, but I felt as if I knew him and remain grateful beyond words that he took the time to write an encouraging letter to me when I was in college.
I began reading his newspaper columns in the Panama City News Herald in 1980 and was struck by his fierce independence of mind. I couldn’t quite categorize him politically, which made him all the more intriguing. He grew up in racially segregated public housing and was drafted into the Army. He was on the receiving end of racial abuse from civil authorities and military officers. In fact, as an army private, he wrote to President Kennedy, asking:
Should Negroes be relieved of their service obligation or continue defending and dying for empty promises of freedom and equality… Or should we demand human rights as our Founding Fathers did at the risk of being called extremists….I contend that we relieve ourselves of oppression in a manner that is in keeping with the great heritage of our nation.
Rather bracing points from a private, no? Walter Williams knew first-hand what racism looked like, but his diagnosis would unsettle advocates of the welfare state when he wrote in 1978 that:
Society is coming to view the difficulty that today’s minorities face in entering the mainstream of society as a manifestation of group incompetence. Hardly anyone acknowledges that many, if not most, of the problems encountered are due neither to group nor to individual incompetence but rather are due to the excesses of governments dominated by politically powerful interest groups.
It’s one thing, you see, to observe that certain groups of people were being held back and mistreated. It’s quite another thing to remove the blinders of obeisance toward progressive masterminds and observe that their actions are often at odds with their paternalistic rhetoric. In his Reason article celebrating Dr. Willams’ life, Nick Gillespie explains that:
The state, Williams argued, typically forced blacks into hopeless situations, provided ineffective relief, and then blamed the victims for failing to rise above their circumstances, all while consolidating power into elite hands. Seemingly beneficial interventions such as minimum wage laws that priced unskilled blacks out of the labor markets, public housing in crime-ridden projects, and mandatory schooling at terrible public institutions were particularly pernicious because they came wrapped in a rhetoric of beneficence.
Dr. Williams went on to author ten books, including America: A Minority Viewpoint, The State Against Blacks, More Liberty Means Less Government, Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed On Discrimination? and American Contempt for Liberty. His work appeared in over 150 publications including Economic Inquiry, American Economic Review, Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy, Newsweek, National Review, Cato Journal, Policy Review, and more. An uncompromising thinker and communicator, Dr. Williams was the John M. Olin distinguished professor of economics at George Mason University … yet he insisted on referring to himself as a “crazy-ass man.”
Basking in his work while still in college, I decided to take my chances and write him a short note asking for his guidance and advice on how I might best pursue my goal of becoming a columnist. Actually, I wasn’t really taking a chance since I calculated the odds of his writing back were roughly equal to the odds of receiving an actual letter from Santa Claus. I’ve seldom been so happy to be proven wrong because, in short order, I received a signed letter from Professor Williams.
To my initial surprise, he advised against pursuing a column as an end unto itself, suggesting instead that I set out to live life to its fullest so that I might later have something interesting to write about, and a practical foundation from which to write. Intellectual nourishment was essential, he pointed out, but so was going out into the world and experiencing it. And so I did, taking that freshly framed letter and hanging it on the wall next to my desk at military bases all over the world. Professor Williams’ words stayed with me across the globe and then across the country as I drove an 18-wheeler through 47 of the lower 48 states and Canada. When I decided to embark on a job in radio, or learn watch repair, or explore the world of retail, or work any number of odd jobs … whatever tendency to back away from the escapade that I felt, would immediately be countered by Walter Williams’ suggestion that a life of varied experience can infuse one’s thoughts and words, adding rich perspective to a topic and informing one’s vantage point.
I’d like to say that the mission is accomplished, but life is an ongoing mission, an ongoing learning experience, if you have the mind and spirit for it. I had hoped to continue that learning experience by inviting Dr. Williams to appear on my show and explore a great many things with him, including his statement years ago that, “The welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn’t do, what Jim Crow couldn’t do, what the harshest racism couldn’t do, and that is to destroy the black family.”
And of course, I’d wanted to talk with him and thank him for that sunburst of insight, offered to a young college student many years ago, barely into adulthood and brimming with enthusiasm and the insatiable desire to save the world. Or at least the North American part of it. Why am I so slow to demonstrate the profound gratitude I feel toward those who have, in one way or another, helped me in my quest to write and offer insights and ideas to as wide an audience as possible? In some sense, I suppose that it’s at least in part to the procrastinator’s curse which assumes that tomorrow will offer another opportunity. It’s also something of a self-imposed tightrope to walk twixt expressing one’s appreciation while maintaining some semblance of communication, versus the horrifying idea of imposing on another person’s good graces and becoming a nuisance. I would sooner listen to Nancy Pelosi explain the supposed virtues of confiscatory tax schemes than badger such as Peter Robinson, Rob Long, David Limbaugh, Pat Sajak, Walter Williams, Troy Senik, Mollie Hemingway, et. al, by becoming one of those people who make themselves into simply. insufferable. bores.
So I sit here, waiting for the perfect opportunity, and sometimes waiting too long. Perhaps the best alternative then, is to acknowledge and mourn the fact that an intellectual giant has departed the field. As Professor Thomas Sowell eloquently wrote, “We may not see his like again. And that is our loss.” Those who knew him are richer for the experience. Certainly, those of us who have been touched by his kindness and benefitted from his good nature and piercing wisdom share a sense of profound loss even as we carry on the good work he so powerfully advanced. A debt unrequited, even as my gratitude remains unyielding. Rest in peace, sir, and thank you.Published in