Against the Tide
Why Lee Walker reached into his own pocket to start a conservative think tank.
By Michael Marsh
After Governor Edgar nominated black conservative Lee H. Walker for a seat on the Illinois Community College Board, Democratic state senator and minority leader Emil Jones tried to derail the appointment, claiming the 57-year-old Burr Ridge resident "would impede the progress" of minorities and women. Walker, a columnist for Crain's Chicago Business and founder of the Chicago-based New Coalition for Economic and Social Change, has actively advocated reevaluating affirmative action policies. Black leaders like Jones, he says, are "dedicated to a view of yesterday."
Walker differs not only from most blacks--he's an unabashed Repub-lican--but from many black conservatives as well. He says he's never been a liberal. Growing up as the eldest of ten children in Troy, Alabama, he was intimately acquainted with the Jim Crow south of the 1950s. His family emphasized hard work and education: Walker's great-grandfather founded a school for black children in a local church, his father worked in a sawmill, and his mother was a maid and cook. To earn spending money, Walker picked cotton and pulled peanuts. "There was no welfare," he recalls. "There were no liberals out there telling us that you cannot learn unless you were in a white school or sitting in school next to whites. What was important was education, period."
During a high school visit to Tuskegee Institute, Walker saw a statue of Booker T. Washington lifting a veil from the face of a crouching black man. "Booker believed in America," Walker says. "He believed in the Constitution and found ways to succeed in spite of racism." Washington faced a legion of black critics in his day, notably W.E.B. DuBois, who argued that Washington overemphasized economic empowerment and vocational skills at the expense of basic political and civil rights. Advocating such virtues as patience, thrift, and good manners, Washington thought blacks could best navigate the nation's racial tensions by working hard to improve their own lot. Today one wall of Walker's office is covered with pictures of Washington.
When Walker was a teenager much of the black community was united around the issue of civil rights. Only a few of his relatives--the landowners in the family--could safely vote in elections. In 1955 Walker helped guard Martin Luther King Jr.'s home during the Montgomery bus boycott. "Kids from everywhere became involved in the boycott--if you had the guts to do it," he says. Later he recounted his experiences for Bearing the Cross, David Garrow's 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning book on King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Walker briefly studied music at Alabama A&M and Alabama State. But in 1960, he headed for New York to study business administration at NYU. He took a job as an office clerk at the Winston-Muss construction company and within five years became director of employee relations. When civil rights activists picketed a New Rochelle construction site in 1966, Walker helped persuade sheet metal, electrical, and plumbing firms to recruit blacks by advertising in black publications. He also got these companies to voluntarily report the number of black employees in subsequent projects. For his efforts the New Rochelle branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People presented Walker with its Distinguished Service Award.
Walker became vice president of the NAACP's Brooklyn chapter at about the same time that he joined the Republican Party. He was one of the youngest board members of the Brooklyn chapter, but eventually he grew disillusioned with the NAACP. In an October 1994 column in Crain's Chicago Business, he called for the organization to confront new problems: "The major issues faced by the civil rights era are, for the most part, over. Challenges we face today...are a lack of self-reliance at a community level, high crime rates in our communities, a public school system that needs restructuring, teen pregnancies, and too many young males in prison."
In 1970 Walker took a job with Sears, Roebuck & Company, where he stayed for 23 years. Sears transferred him to Chicago in 1979, and the next year he attended a landmark meeting of 100 black academics and businesspeople in San Francisco that proved to be a turning point in his career as an activist. The conference was organized by conservative economist Thomas Sowell, who became a major influence on Walker.
In his essay "What 'Black Conservative' Means to Me," included in the recently published collection Black and Right (Praeger), Walker writes, "Thanks to the growing prominence of the work of people like Thomas Sowell, I at last had a chance to break a self-imposed censorship on controversial topics and remarks, and talk openly with others about the centrality of character and values, and the disappointment so many black Americans feel with their de facto 'leaders.'"
The conference renewed Walker's conservative convictions. He's chaired black committees for every Republi-can presidential nominee in Illinois since 1980, and in 1991 he helped line up support for his friend Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court. More recently he was part of a national exploratory committee to set up what could have been Colin Powell's 1996 presidential run. Walker sits on the boards of the Chicago State University Foundation and the Heartland Institute, a Palatine-based think tank that focuses on economic issues. As a marketing consultant and "director for social change" at the Spathies Construction Corporation, he's helped start an affordable housing program with the Interfaith Organizing Project of Greater Chicago, building homes on the city's west side that will cost between $74,000 and $89,000.
Three years ago, Walker accepted early retirement from Sears and started the New Coalition for Economic and Social Change. "The buyout was so attractive I thought I'd have to be a fool not to take it," he says. "What I had to do was convince my wife I wasn't crazy by saying I wanted to open up a think tank. Most folks didn't know what I was talking about in the first place. Instead of making money, I was talking about giving away my money." Through the New Coalition Walker hopes to "encourage the pursuit of alternative public policies that promote economic independence and strengthen the institutions of families, schools, churches, and communities." Three issues are central to his "new black agenda":
reexamining the role of affirmative action in government and business, instituting a school-voucher system, and reforming welfare programs. Walker hopes his three-year-old organization will eventually attract outside donations, but he realizes he's fighting an uphill battle.
"It was by choice that I invested my own money in the think tank because I knew that I was controversial," he explains. "Black folks don't like Clarence Thomas. I was aware of that. I started my organization without any promise of any funds from the federal government or from any corporation or any foundation. I wanted to show the big C on my part--commitment--hoping by showing the big C that there would be folks in the business of giving away money who would recognize ethics and morality where they saw it and would be favorable toward giving money."
Walker's commitment is evident when he discusses the issues that are closest to his heart. While many maintain that vouchers will take away money from public schools, Walker has long argued that vouchers will foster competition and make schools better. "Vouchers are not a black thing. It just so happens that blacks, Hispanics, and other nonwhites would probably benefit more from vouchers. I don't think vouchers would put public education out of business any more than Pell Grants. When Pell Grants first came, everybody was screaming, 'State universities are going to go out of business now.' It's scare tactics."
While he advocates vouchers as a possible governmental solution to bad schools, Walker would like to see the welfare state dismantled. In his opinion, America has "no place for a welfare bureaucracy and establishment that's perpetuating dependency and jobs for middle-class folks. Those middle-class folks can be far more productive in other areas of society. We do not want to build up a bureaucracy on keeping a group of folks dependent. That's far more related to slavery than it is to the American dream." He also feels that affirmative action has outlived its usefulness. "I supported affirmative action when Hobart Taylor first mentioned that term to President Kennedy back in the early 60s. I benefited from it and so did others because it was a tool to ensure equal opportunity--as much as it could--of getting folks into the door to be hired, to be trained. But that was just the first leg. It was never meant to be an umbrella for everything that white folks did wrong to black folks." Writing in Crain's Chicago Business about last year's racial discrimination case against Texaco, Walker wrote, "The problem is not so much being hired as it is being promoted beyond the invisible ceiling. The ceiling is invisible because the height of the ceiling depends on the ethics or morality of senior management. We need another remedy to fight racial discrimination and to ensure affirmative opportunity for all." He suggests the courts may offer some solutions, concluding with a quote from Clarence Thomas: "Government cannot make us equal; it can only recognize, respect, and protect us equally before the law."
To many blacks, Walker's brand of conservatism--with its emphasis on morality and hard work--sounds like blaming the victim, another reason to reject his politics as hostile toward blacks. One south-side activist qualified his opinion of Walker by saying, "Lee is a good guy--even though he's a Republican." George E. Curry, editor of the black-oriented magazine Emerge, is more blunt: "If anyone has doubts about whether blacks are conservative on social issues, I suggest examining two political yardsticks: party affiliation and voting patterns in presidential elections. Research compiled by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies shows that when identifying themselves by political parties or voting in national elections, more than 80 percent of African-Americans favor Democrats. This is not because blacks are so pro-Democrat; it's because the Republican Party is so anti-black."
Yet Walker denies that the Republican Party is a party of whites only. "Go back to history. There were no blacks in the Democratic Party. It was a Republican president who sent the federal troops to Arkansas. In spite of what blacks think of the Republican Party, they would not have passed any civil rights laws if it weren't for Republicans, because there were Democrats who voted against them. We live in a two-party system. I'm not advocating that all black folks should be Republicans. I'm just saying we disenfranchise the entire group by being all in one party." Walker points to a 1994 poll of Chicago-area blacks conducted by the Survey Laboratory at Northwestern Univer-sity: 46 percent of the respondents identified themselves as "slightly conservative," "conservative," or "extremely conservative."
"There are other folks who think as I do who are not as public about it as I am," he says. "We all fight in our different ways." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lee Walker photo by Nathan Mandell.