On May 29, 1963, Pvt. 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. The armed forces may have been officially integrated at that point, but as Williams knew from firsthand experience, Jim Crow was still alive and well on military bases throughout the South and overseas. "Should Negroes be relieved of their service obligation or continue defending and dying for empty promises of freedom and equality?" Williams demanded. "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 to 2001, writing a nationally syndicated column that now appears in more than 140 newspapers, and filling in as a regular guest host for talk radio giant Rush Limbaugh. (Williams is also a trustee emeritus of the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit organization that publishes this magazine.) 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 Homes, 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, labor legislation that gave monopoly bargaining power to racist unions, Interstate Commerce Commission regulations that effectively barred black truckers from competing on the highways, and other insidious, state-sanctioned barriers to entry.
"There are numerous laws, regulations and ordinances that have reduced or eliminated avenues of upward mobility for blacks," he observed. Take the taxicab industry. It requires relatively little in terms of start-up funds or business skills to own and operate a cab. "A poor illiterate Italian," Williams wrote, "arriving in our cities in 1925 or 1930 could, if he had ambition and industry, go out and buy a car and write TAXI on it." Yet in the early 1980s that same opportunity was closed to urban blacks due to costly and unnecessary licensing requirements and arbitrary limits on the number of cabs in a given market.
Labor laws had a similarly pernicious effect. As Williams documents, white railroad unions successfully lobbied the government for legal privileges, particularly the right to exclusively represent all workers in a unionized shop. With this monopoly bargaining power in place, a union's refusal to admit black workers functioned as a de facto ban on all blacks in the field. Union privileges also prevented the railroads from hiring anyone, black or white, willing to work for nonunion wages to get a foot in the door.
Williams' 1989 book South Africa's War Against Capitalism brought the same type of scrutiny to the infamous apartheid regime. According to many leftists at that time, apartheid epitomized the exploitation inherent in a capitalist system. But as Williams pointed out, the South African government maintained white power by denying blacks economic liberty as well as political rights. "The whole ugly history of apartheid has been an attack on free markets and the rights of individuals," he wrote. One distinguishing feature of the apartheid state, for example, was a set of laws that "reserved" certain jobs exclusively for whites. Not exactly laissez faire. "The presence of job reservation laws suggests that at least some employers would hire blacks," Williams argued, since otherwise the laws would be unnecessary. To maintain the white power system, the government had to actively suppress market forces.
Today Williams' analysis of discriminatory state action is widely accepted among academics, including many scholars on the left. In his 2005 book When Affirmative Action Was White, for instance, the liberal Columbia political scientist Ira Katznelson observes 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." As an example of the federal government's privileging of white workers at the expense of blacks, Katznelson cited New Deal labor laws.
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," sneered George E. Jordan of the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1983 (in what turned out to be a column plagiarized almost entirely from The Washington Post's Carl Rowan, who had directed his bile at the black pro-market economist Thomas Sowell). "But I have nothing but contempt for people like Williams and his collaboration with the conservatives." Benjamin Hooks, then executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 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 healthy doses of 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. It's a good lesson for anyone trying to make his mark on the world.
Meanwhile, Williams' long fight for individualism answers 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.
Bonus Reason.tv video: "Walter Williams: Up From the Projects."