Welcome to Pride in America Month. Every day in the month of June and through Independence Day, we will highlight a figure who has demonstrated and defended American values. Consider it a healthy alternative to the Left's June celebration that has taken over the media and corporate America.
Walter Williams, a distinguished professor and champion of American values, left an indelible mark on the field of economics as well as his students. Williams, who died in late 2020, served as chair of the economics department when I was a graduate student at George Mason University. I have witnessed first hand his exceptional teaching methods and the profound impact he had on students and the field of economics.
Williams grew up in a single-parent household in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia. He was reared by his mother, a high school dropout, after his father left the family when Williams was two or three years old. The fatherless family spent time on welfare and living in the Richard Allen public housing project. In his autobiography, "Up From the Projects," Williams recounts what he did to overcome poverty and racial discrimination. He served in the U.S. Army, became a husband and father and earned his Ph.D. from UCLA. He quickly became a sought-after researcher and public intellectual.
Williams often used his own life to illustrate how government regulations end up denying opportunities to those in need. He gave as one example being fired from a great job at a hat factory as a teenager due to child labor laws.
Williams understood how much he learned in that and other jobs, and how they led to his success later in life.
"A supreme tragedy, in light of the great civil rights gains made by black people, is that the young kids who live in North Philadelphia today don’t have the work opportunities that I had. Early work experiences not only provide the pride and self-confidence that comes from financial semi-independence but also teach youngsters attitudes and habits that will make them more valuable and successful workers in the future. That is especially important for young people who attend rotten schools and live in fatherless homes. If they’re going to learn anything that will make them valuable workers, it will have to come through on-the-job training."
Williams' journey up from the projects is part of what led him to advocate for economic freedom.
His friends described him as a "no-nonsense truth teller." He was not concerned about the popularity of an opinion but to what conclusion the evidence pointed.
Williams had a deep dedication to morality and despised the idea of majority rule. As he wrote in his book "All It Takes is Guts,"
"How does something immoral, when done privately, become moral when it is done collectively? Furthermore, does legality establish morality? Slavery was legal; apartheid is legal; Stalinist, Nazi, and Maoist purges were legal. Clearly, the fact of legality does not justify these crimes. Legality, alone, cannot be the talisman of moral people.”
Williams had a passion for teaching and demanded excellence from his students. His engaging teaching style captivated students and made complex economic concepts accessible. He had an exceptional ability to connect with his audience by using relatable examples and real-world applications that drove home economic principles. Williams' intellectual rigor was evident in his ability to challenge students' thinking and foster critical analysis, encouraging them to think independently and develop their own economic perspectives.
Williams did not give or accept any hand-outs. He also was an ardent critic of race-based policies and identity politics. His friends recount that he told potential employers that if he learned he was hired because he was black, he would resign immediately. He held students to the one standard, regardless of their race. When he called out his colleagues for holding black students to lower standards, it sparked conflict with them. But he was not deterred. The practice, he believed, was an act of racism. He believed such race-based treatment contributed to what George W. Bush called the “soft bigotry of low expectations” for black and other minority students in the education system.
Walter Williams was a master of the economic way of thinking. Thankfully Americans can still learn from him. His columns and books follow the facts wherever they lead and show the powerful potential of liberty.
Do you have a great American who deserves to be celebrated this month? Let us know!