Man Versus the State

Economist Walter E. Williams reflects on his long career battling Jim Crow, big government, and liberal orthodoxy


On May 29, 1963, Private Walter E. Williams of the U.S. Army's 30th Infantry Division wrote a letter to President John F. Kennedy denouncing the pervasive racism of the American government and military. "Should Negroes be relieved of their service obligation or continue defending and dying for empty promises of freedom and equality," Williams demanded of the president. "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."

It wasn't the first time Walter Williams came out swinging against the government and it wouldn't be the last. A self-described "crazy-ass man who insisted on talking about liberty in America," Williams ultimately established himself as one of the country's leading libertarian voices, serving as the chairman of George Mason University's economics department from 1995-2001, writing a nationally syndicated column that now appears in over 140 newspapers, and filling in as a regular guest host for talk radio giant Rush Limbaugh. (Williams is also a trustee emeritus of Reason Foundation, the non-profit that publishes this website.)

In Up from the Projects: An Autobiography, the 74-year-old Williams offers a revealing and sometimes hilarious account of his rise from Philadelphia's Richard Allen housing projects, where his neighbors included a young Bill Cosby, to "brown bag" lunches at the White House where he gave advice to President Ronald Reagan and his staff.

The author of seven books and dozens of academic articles, Williams is perhaps best known for his rigorous, fact-based argument that the free market is a force for racial equality. "Instead of racial discrimination and bigotry, it is the 'rules of the game' that account for many of the economic handicaps faced by blacks," he wrote in his groundbreaking 1982 book, The State Against Blacks. As Williams explained, those rules included occupational licensing laws that prevented African Americans from working in numerous trades, pro-union legislation that gave monopoly bargaining power to racist labor unions, Interstate Commerce Commission regulations that effectively barred black truckers from competing on the highways, and other insidious, state-sanctioned barriers to entry. His 1989 book South Africa's War Against Capitalism brought the same scrutiny to the infamous apartheid regime, which, Williams pointed out, maintained white power by denying political and economic liberty to black South Africans. There was nothing laissez-faire about it.

Today, Williams' analysis of discriminatory state action is widely accepted among academics, including by many scholars on the left. For example, in his 2005 book When Affirmative Action Was White, liberal Columbia University political scientist Ira Katznelson observed that "policy decisions dealing with welfare, work, and war during Jim Crow's last hurrah in the 1930s and 1940s excluded, or differently treated, the vast majority of African Americans."

Williams made the same point more than 20 years earlier—and he paid a price for upsetting the liberal consensus. As he recounts in Up from the Projects, he was the target of frequent personal attacks. "I could never really get angry at the old Stepin Fetchits and Aunt Jemimas, for they were uneducated and simply practicing acts of survival. But I have nothing for contempt for people like Williams and his collaboration with the conservatives," sneered George E. Jordan of the Cleveland Plain Dealer (in what turned out to be a plagiarized column). Former NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks was just as ugly, describing black libertarians like Williams as "a new breed of Uncle Tom."

These grotesque attacks are demonstrably false. Williams waged a one man battle against Jim Crow from inside the army (where he was nearly court-martialed for challenging the racial order) and continued to fight racist government action as a distinguished scholar and teacher. A principled liberal would celebrate Williams' efforts even while disagreeing with some of his free-market conclusions.

But Williams isn't out to settle those old scores here. Up from the Projects narrates the highs and lows of his life with a healthy dose humility and self-deprecation. "Much of what I've achieved has not only been a result of hard work and sacrifice but luck and chance as well," he writes. That includes "being at the right place, or even the wrong place, at the right time."

It's a good lesson for anyone trying to make their mark on the world. But more importantly, Williams' long fight for individualism reveals the answer to that question he posed to President Kennedy back in 1963. "Should we demand human rights as our Founding Fathers did at the risk of being called extremists?"

Yes, we should.

Damon W. Root is an associate editor at Reason magazine.