‘Lifting the Veil of Ignorance’: an exclusive interview with Lee H. Walker

Published January 1, 2005

Lee H. Walker, president of The New Coalition for Economic and Social Change, knows how important it is for children from limited environments to have a teacher or role model who can open their eyes to the breadth and freedom of opportunity available to them here in the United States.

That’s because Walker has lived the experience himself, growing up as a black child in the segregated Deep South of the 1940s and being inspired by the example of Booker T. Washington to pursue a successful career as a corporate executive in New York and Chicago.

Walker’s own educational experiences also underlie his support for school choice, for giving children from all backgrounds the opportunity for an education to prepare them for pursuing their dreams. “Get an education,” the old people used to tell him. Although the 1954 Brown decision was supposed to make that easier for blacks to achieve, Walker’s views on the ruling are mixed because he sees so much effort was wasted in pursuing integration at the expense of educational excellence.

Before becoming president of The New Coalition in 1993, Walker was in corporate America for 33 years, starting with a shopping center management company in New York, where he rose from office boy to director of labor relations. He worked for Sears, Roebuck, and Company for 23 years, the first 10 in the New York buying office and the next 13 in the national headquarters in Chicago.

In October 2002, Walker’s New Coalition became partners with The Heartland Institute to develop and promote a conservative multicultural perspective on economic and social policies. In 2004, he organized and moderated a panel on black conservatism at The Heritage Foundation’s 2004 Resource Bank Meeting and plans to publish the proceedings as a book, titled The Conscience of Conservative Blacks.

Walker is involved in a number of civic and professional organizations, including Sigma Pi Phi, Delta Alpha Boule (Northern Illinois), and the Chicago Chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. He is a director of the Black United Fund of Illinois and a trustee of the Foundation Board for the University of the Orange Free State (South Africa). He is a former member of the Illinois State Board of Higher Education.

Walker graduated from Fordham University, New York City, where he majored in economics. A member of the editorial board and an editorial writer for the Chicago Defender, he also writes a monthly column for Crain’s Chicago Business. He is a frequent guest on local and national TV and radio programs. Walker recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: What was it like growing up in the South before Brown v. Board of Education?

Walker: I grew up in a legally segregated South, but in a conservative section of the Deep South, about 40 miles from Tuskegee University. I mention that because all around Tuskegee, even as late as the 1940s and 1950s, the influence of the Booker T. Washington philosophy was still out there.

In both black and white schools, the curriculum was the same, but not the quality. Both black and white boys took agriculture and shop, and black and white girls went to home economics, but at different schools. The white boys in the ninth grade were called Future Farmers of America, and the black boys were called New Farmers of America. We couldn’t even have the same darn name.

Now, Plessy v. Ferguson said “Separate but equal.” In reality, it was “Separate but never equal.” So when Brown came along on May 17, 1954, everybody said Brown had overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. It didn’t. It may have had the law right, but not the facts.

What Brown really did was to end segregation in public facilities. It didn’t do anything with respect to segregated schools. The Brown decision was made in 1954 but no schools in the South integrated before 1964–and only then because the Supreme Court made another decision that called for integration “with all deliberate speed.”

Clowes: You’ve made the point that the Brown ruling was based on the assumption that school facilities for blacks and whites were equal.

Walker: And they were not. We were well aware that our schools were not equal. We would get our books from the white school–when they got new books, we got their old ones.

The schools became half-equal when they integrated, with blacks sitting in the same classroom as white students. That didn’t last too long, and they soon had segregated classrooms, even in the North. There would be a 7A class for all the smart kids, and a 7B for the others. All the whites and maybe one or two blacks were in 7A.

My whole argument with Brown is that integration never should have been a goal, it should have been a result. A quality education should have been the goal. If it had been, we would not still be dealing with the achievement gap 40 years on. Integration isn’t really the goal. A nice neighborhood is. A decent salary is. A good school is.

A field trip changed my life more than Brown did. When I was in the ninth grade, the boys went on a field trip to visit the campus of Tuskegee University, where there is a statue of Booker T. Washington. I was mesmerized when I saw that statue. I had never seen a life-size–let alone a giant-size–statue of a black man. All giant-sized statues I had seen until then were white males, like Robert E. Lee. But here was a giant-sized black man, dressed up in fine clothes, with one hand pointing out to the future and the other “lifting the veil of ignorance” from a black boy in raggedy clothes.

When I saw that statue, I said, “I’m in good shape now. I don’t have to prove anything. Booker has already taken care of it for me.” He was born a slave but he became world-famous as an educator, entrepreneur, and black leader. He became my personal hero, like a black Horatio Alger. Horatio Alger was an excellent inspirational story for poor white boys to be somebody. If you were black, you understood the story but you knew you couldn’t do what the white boy could.

Normally, all the black heroes were killed for standing up against a white man. But here was a man who had the respect of white Southerners and white Northerners as well as blacks. He had made it. His book, Up from Slavery, became a guide for me. I said, “If Booker could leave home to better himself, I could leave home to better myself, too.” If he had done it, I could.

Clowes: How did you get from the Deep South to corporate America in New York City?

Walker: I chose corporate America in New York. Normally, where blacks went to in the North depended on what part of the South they were in, because of the way the trains ran. The train coming out of Mississippi ran up the middle of the country to Chicago. The train over my way rode up east of the Mississippi to Ohio, and so all of my folks in Alabama went to Akron, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan.

The way I broke that mold was because of television. I had no guidance counselor. Television was my guidance counselor.

Watching television–and the movies–I saw that all of the successful white men lived in New York, and they worked as executives in two places: in Rockefeller Center or on Wall Street. I saw that and I said, “I want to be an executive.” I didn’t know what the heck an executive was. All I knew was they had white shirts and attaché cases. But I followed the Booker model. I left home, went to New York, and enrolled at a city college.

Then I discovered corporate America didn’t choose their important employees from the city colleges, and so I left Brooklyn College and went to New York University. But when I got to NYU, they tested me and told me I needed to take six months of reading and writing comprehension, and six months of college algebra.

Now, before 1964, no one was talking about diversity at NYU. If you didn’t score high enough, you had to take remedial courses whether you were black or white. But after taking the courses, as I did, you entered the regular program. Everybody in the regular program knew you had to pass the test to get in and so you didn’t go in with any stigma, as blacks do now with affirmative action.

When NYU became too expensive for me, I transferred to Fordham University, where I graduated with a degree in economics.

After Fordham, I got a job just by knocking on doors on Wall Street and in Rockefeller Center. I’ll never forget one person at a Wall Street bank telling me, “Do you think we just take people off the street and make them tellers?” Heck, I didn’t know, but I wasn’t discouraged.

I looked in the paper and saw some office boy jobs in Rockefeller Center for $50 a week. One of them was with the Winston-Muss Corporation. David Muss was a South African Jew from Capetown and Norman K. Winston was a Russian Jew. I went to apply for a job with them.

Muss asked me, “Can you file?” I didn’t know what filing was, but I said, “I have the capacity to learn.” He recognized I was quoting from The Agony and the Ecstasy, a book on the life of Michelangelo by Irving Stone. Because I had read that book, this Jewish lawyer in a Jewish firm said, “Lee Walker, I’m going to give you a chance.” He did, and he mentored me, telling me how to talk, how to handle situations, where to get a three-piece suit, and so on. That’s how I got a job in Rockefeller Center.

I had asked for $50 a week, but at the end of the first week, I got $55. The next week, I got $65. The following week, I went up another $5. In 10 years, I went from office boy to an officer in the company.

Clowes: And you then went on to Sears?

Walker: Winston-Muss was a $50 million-to-$75 million firm and after 10 years, I wanted to work for a larger corporation. That’s how I ended up at Sears, Roebuck, and Company. By this point, I also had become head of a group of young black executives. In addition, affirmative action had come into play, but I didn’t see that it was going to change anything much. At Sears, I saw it wasn’t working.

Then, in 1980, about a month after Ronald Reagan was elected, I went to a national meeting of black conservatives at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco to discuss alternative policies and strategies to the welfare state and affirmative action. It was the first national gathering of conservative blacks since Booker T. Washington died in 1915. Henry Lucas, Jr. and Thomas Sowell called the meeting. Clarence Thomas was there, and Walter Williams, Randolph Bromery, and Clarence Pendleton. Milton Friedman and Ed Meese were there, too.

What came out of that conference was a book called The Fairmont Papers. What also came out of it was The New Coalition for Economic and Social Change. Clarence Pendleton was the first director. After I took early retirement from Sears in 1993, I took over The New Coalition and moved it to Illinois.

The New Coalition is an extension of the philosophical views of Booker T. Washington–economic independence and social advancement for blacks and for all Americans. Our mission is to encourage the pursuit of alternative public polices that promote economic independence and strengthen the institutions of families, churches, and communities. The New Coalition is about free markets. It’s about self-reliance. It’s about self-determination.

Blacks like Marcus Garvey had talked about having a black nation or going back to Africa, but Washington didn’t advocate going anywhere. He said: Learn to do something well here in the United States and the Negro will prosper. Booker always said blacks should be proud of working because it builds character and is part of being self-reliant.

I think blacks are finally looking at what Booker was emphasizing almost 100 years ago: the economic side. He argued, “Take care of the economics, and the political side will fall into line.” We went the political route rather than the economic route and so we haven’t had the wealth development that we could have had in the black community.

One thing that hurts the black movement right now is the lack of diversity in political views. Ninety percent of blacks vote with the Democratic Party. Hispanics, on the other hand, are not a group you can put in your back pocket. Forty percent of the Hispanic vote went to George Bush in November, and I think that had a lot to do with the recent nomination of a Hispanic for Attorney General and another Hispanic for Secretary of Commerce.

Clowes: Is school choice one of The New Coalition’s alternative public policies to promote economic independence?

Walker: It is. I held my first meeting on school vouchers here in Chicago in 1984 with the help of Sears and The Heritage Foundation. We had a seminar on vouchers and Marva Collins was the keynote speaker.

I’m for school choice for two reasons. Number one, the present system is failing. Number two, school choice would give parents the opportunity to put their children in an environment that is better than the one they’ve been assigned to by the school district. I don’t think choice is a panacea, but you have to be out of your mind to want to stay in a burning house. With choice, at least you can get out.

I think the system itself is the problem. It’s not a school system, it’s a bureaucracy. And for low-income children, this bureaucracy perpetuates low expectations. Teachers need to broaden the horizons of opportunity for students and encourage self-sufficiency. One way to do that would be to give families some say in where their children go to school. The money should follow the child.

Education has always meant a lot to black folks. Black Americans understand the true value of education because they know their individual freedom depends on it.