Walter Williams: Steadfast Scholar, Missionary of Freedom

Thank you, Walter Williams, for your steadfastness from start to finish

By guest author Lawrence W. Reed
December 7, 2020

Much has been written about the late, great economist Walter Williams. Two days after his passing on December 2, it is a challenge to add something new.

Fellow economist Thomas Sowell penned a moving tribute to his long-time friend. In The Wall Street Journal, George Mason University colleague Donald Boudreaux lauded Walter’s research and teaching, as did Peter Jacobsen on this very site. Many such encomiums are in print and online, with surely many more to follow.

We are awash with remembrances because legions of people knew Walter, loved him, and were inspired by him. That very fact is a monument to him, and undoubtedly a more imposing one than the humble scholar ever wished for himself.

While others have surely noted it, one attribute of the many admirable ones which Walter Williams possessed deserves a further word. It is one that I personally hold in high esteem. It is all too rare in people and organizations. I know from conversations with Walter that he held FEE in the highest regard because we also possess this attribute.

In a word, it is steadfastness.

Walter appreciated this remark in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre: “Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigor … If at my convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?”

Pursuing truth for its own sake and mustering the courage to speak it without equivocation should be the loftiest of objectives in any profession. They fit the life and career of Walter Williams perfectly. He was a man of solid conviction, of unmovable passions for what he knew to be right. And he was always that way, for as far back as I have memory of him. He was the very epitome of what it means to be steadfast.

Once Walter embraced freedom and free markets (before I was even born, I think), he devoted his life to illuminating those concepts. He loved to share them with others, students especially. Though he contributed much to the literature of these subjects himself, he never possessed an arrogance that would prompt him to ignore the contributions of others. On more occasions that I can count, he asked me (and others at FEE over the years) for copies of classics that he could pass out to audiences—especially Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil” and Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law.” To him, fealty to the message—to what was true—was the most important thing. It didn’t matter who the messenger was.

He was a missionary, not a monk. The truths about freedom and free markets were too important to him to keep to himself or within an academic journal. He preached, and he preached to all who would listen.

The world is rife with sell-outs, opportunists, people and organizations who will tell you whatever you want to hear. There are all too many who will forsake their own beliefs for as little as an honorarium or a friendly headline. Not Walter.

Everyone who knew him, no matter for how long, will tell you he was the same and he said the same as he was and said decades ago. In our cynical age, drenched in political correctness and timidity, is that as refreshing to you as it is to me? I hope so.

No one ever spoke of a Walter Williams “mellowing” in his later years. Maybe mellowing is called for sometimes, especially if you stink. But if eternal principles animate you, to mellow is to weaken or, as Margaret Thatcher once put it, to go wobbly. In this regard, Walter Williams never mellowed. He never “leaked.” He was the same Walter in 2020 as the Walter of yesteryear.

That is one of the reasons Walter loved FEE. He saw the same steadfastness in us. We are fond of including this endorsement from him in our annual reports:

The most important job is to sell our fellow Americans on the moral superiority of personal liberty and its main ingredient: limited government envisioned by our nation’s Founders. The Foundation for Economic Education is the organization that leads the way in selling that idea and teaching our youngsters the fundamentals of economics and liberty.

Like Walter, FEE is committed to precisely the same eternal values that motivated our institutional career from the start. We are proud to have had a long association with the fellow true believer that Walter was.

Thank you, Walter Williams, for your steadfastness from start to finish. The certitude with which you blessed the world will always be a hallmark of your remarkable legacy.

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