Walter Williams' Memoir

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by Thomas Sowell: The
‘Gridlock’ Bogeyman



Walter E.
Williams is my oldest and closest friend. But I didn’t know that
his autobiography had just been published until a talk show host
told me last week. I immediately got a copy of Up
from the Projects
, started reading it before dinner and
finished reading it before bedtime.

It is the
kind of book that you hate to put down, even though I already knew
how the story would end.

The first
chapter, about Walter’s life growing up in the Philadelphia ghetto,
was especially fascinating. It brought back a whole different era
in black communities — an era that is now almost irretrievably lost,
to the great disadvantage of today’s generation growing up in the
same neighborhoods where Walter grew up in Philadelphia or where
I grew up in Harlem.

Although Walter’s
memoir is titled Up from the Projects, the projects of the
era when he was growing up bear virtually no resemblance to the
projects of today.

For one thing,
those projects were clean, and the people living in them helped
keep them clean, by sweeping the halls and tending to the surrounding
areas outside of the buildings as well. The people living in the
projects then were probably poorer than the people living in the
projects now. But they had not yet succumbed to the moral squalor
afflicting such places today.

More important,
they — and the whole black community of which they were part — were
far safer than today. As late as 1958, when Walter was a young taxi
driver in Philadelphia, he used to park his cab in the wee hours
of the morning and take a nap in it. As he points out, “A cabbie
doing the same thing today would be deemed suicidal.”

There were
jobs for black teenagers in those days, and Walter worked at a dizzying
variety of those jobs. Most of those jobs are long gone today, as
are the businesses that hired black teenagers.

While there
are greater opportunities for many blacks today, there are far fewer
opportunities for those blacks at the bottom, living in ghettos
across the country and trapped in a counterproductive and even dangerous
way of life.

The times
in which Walter Williams grew up were by no means idyllic times,
nor was Walter a model child nor always a model adult, as he candidly
shows. He even reproduces the documents recording his court martial
in the Army.

How Walter
Williams changed for the better — partly as a result of his wife,
who “became a civilizing and humanizing influence in my life” —
is one of the themes of this book. The other great influence in
Walter’s life was his mother, one of those strong and wise black
women who has had much to do with providing the foundation from
which many other black men and women rose out of poverty to higher
levels of achievement.

With Walter,
that path was not a straight line but had many zigs and zags, and
there were times when he was a disappointment to his mother. But,
in the end, he vindicated all the efforts and hopes that she had
invested in him.

There were
also teachers, and then professors, who played a role in developing
his mind — especially hard-nosed teachers in Philadelphia who chewed
him out when he messed up and UCLA professors who bluntly told him
when his work wasn’t good enough.

None of
them was the kind of warm, chummy educators that so many hold up
as an ideal. After Walter Williams earned his Ph.D. in economics
and went on to become a professor himself, he was scathing in his
criticism of fuzzy-minded faculty members who think they are doing
students a favor by going easy on them or giving them higher grades
than they deserve.

he began to write about racial issues, Walter was able to draw not
only on his research as an economist, but also on his personal experiences
in the Philadelphia ghetto, in the Jim Crow South and in South Africa,
where he lived for some months during the era of Apartheid.

Few others
had so much to draw on, and many of them failed to understand that
Walter Williams saw a lot deeper than they did. As a result, his
conclusions made him a controversial figure.

When I
finished reading “Up from the Projects,” I wished it had been a
longer book. But it got the job done — and its insights are much
needed today.

8, 2010

Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford
University. His Web site is
To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read features by other
Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators
Syndicate web page

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