Another good man gone, one we could hardly afford to lose.
Walter Williams loved teaching. Unlike too many other teachers today, he made it a point never to impose his opinions on his students. Those who read his syndicated newspaper columns know that he expressed his opinions boldly and unequivocally there. But not in the classroom.
Walter once said he hoped that, on the day he died, he would have taught a class that day. And that is just the way it was, when he died on Wednesday, December 2, 2020.
He was my best friend for half a century. There was no one I trusted more or whose integrity I respected more. Since he was younger than me, I chose him to be my literary executor, to take control of my books after I was gone.
But his death is a reminder that no one really has anything to say about such things.
Dr Williams was a top-tier thinker, a brilliant writer, and a true character, a man who will sorely be missed. The above excerpt is from an obit written by the great Thomas Sowell, another whose eventual loss Team Liberty will feel keenly. More from Nick Gillespie:
Williams was so libertarian that he refused to accept the term as a descriptor. I interviewed him in 2011 and asked him whether he saw himself as part of the libertarian movement to which he had contributed so much. No, he said. “I just do my own thing.”
Born in Philadelphia in 1936, Williams grew up as a neighbor to Bill Cosby in the city’s racially segregated housing projects and was drafted into the peacetime Army during the Cold War. A self-described “crazy-ass man who insisted on talking about liberty in America” long before he was a public intellectual, the racist violence and abuse he suffered at the hands of police, military officers, and other authorities informed much of his work. In his powerful, evocative 2010 memoir, Up From the Projects, he recounts the time when, as a cab driver in the City of Brotherly Love, he was ordered out of his cab by a white officer, beaten up, and then charged with disorderly conduct. He wasn’t thrilled about being drafted and being sent to a base in pre-integration Georgia. Disgusted by the pervasive racism he encountered in the military, Private Williams wrote to his commander in chief, President John F. Kennedy:
“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.”
Williams was also a contrarian. He attacked discrimination by the state but defended the rights of private citizens to exclude whomever they wanted for whatever reason. A public library, he said, couldn’t discriminate, but a private library could turn away anyone it wanted to. From our 2011 interview:
One of my strong values is freedom of association. If you believe in freedom of association, you have to accept that people will associate in ways that you find offensive. I believe people have the right to discriminate on any basis they want, so long as they’re not using a government [to do so].
Williams had a great flair for the apocalyptic. In his columns and during stints guest-hosting for Rush Limbaugh, he would often argue that America had irrevocably lost its way, especially when it came to defending the economic freedom that he believed was essential to rising living standards. If his rhetoric ran hot, he nevertheless asked questions that are well worth considering a decade after the Great Recession and in the midst of a medically induced economic coma.
That doesn’t go nearly far enough to suit me. In fact, such questions are more than merely “well worth considering,” and not just for a decade either. They are eternal, and essential. It is vital that they are kept front and center in the mind of any person who hopes to live free in defiance of the petty tyrants that plague us, not for decades but for all time. They are a direct representation of the “constant vigilance” so urgently commended to us as no less than the price of liberty.
Are we so arrogant…to think that we are different from other people around the world?… How different are we from the Romans, who went down the tubes, or the British, or the French, or the Spanish, or the Portuguese? These are great empires of the past, but they went down the tubes for roughly the same things that we’re doing. Liberty is the rare state of affairs in mankind’s history, arbitrary abuse and control by others is the standard dish even now. All the tendencies are for us to have greater and greater amounts of our liberty usurped by government.
How perfectly Dr Williams’ statement dovetails with at least one alternate version of the “eternal vigilance” quote frequently attributed to Jefferson:
Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten. The living sap of today outgrows the dead rind of yesterday. The hand entrusted with power becomes, either from human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.
Per-zackly, and you can be sure that Williams knew it quite well too. Back over to Gillespie for the sign-off.
If we are not as far down the road to serfdom as he feared, it’s in good part due to his voluminous writings and appearances which were by turns impassioned, funny, insightful, and memorable as hell. Walter E. Williams, rest in peace.
Amen to that. Fare ye well, Walter Williams. Forever may you rest in peace, good sir.
Update! Dr Williams’ last Townhall column can be found here.