The Lamplighter: Walter Stafford, 1940-2008

Standing on the sidewalk on a brisk San Francisco morning, lost in thought, I received a call from my longtime colleague and dear friend Kevin Ryan.

“I have some terribly sad news to tell you,” Kevin said. “Professor Stafford is dead.”

This was terribly sad news not just for us, but also for the many people that Professor Stafford touched. Walter Stafford, who died September 13, was one of those rare people you encounter in life that make you a better person simply by knowing him.

Kevin and I had the added benefit of being his students while in graduate school at New York University’s Wagner School. We had traveled to NYU on similar paths but from different geographical directions. He was the son of one of the first Black skilled tradesman on the auto line in Detroit and I was the son of an Italian immigrant bricklayer in Philadelphia. We’d come to NYU’s Wagner School to get more involved in helping to change social policy in a way that would help the people we knew and cared about: the working class, the poor, immigrants, minorities. Our time at NYU was somewhat of a disappointment until, that is, we enrolled in Professor Stafford’s “Human Rights Policy” class.

“That’s where it all began for us,” Kevin said somberly, “and now Professor Stafford is gone and it’s even more important to carry on that legacy.”

Yes it is.

Walter Stafford was raised in Tuskegee, Alabama ,and was fundamentally shaped by its deep history of prejudice and hatred. Yet Stafford was never bitter or cynical; he didn’t allow himself to be. It would have meant giving in to the injustice around him. Professor Stafford, instead, channeled any feelings of bitterness into social activism that became the hallmark of his life.

He rejected the acceptance of the way things were and elected to move through life with dignity and honor. First, by becoming an exemplary student at the Tuskegee Institute and then by putting all his energy and spirit into the cause of civil rights.

Early on he was a volunteer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a key civil rights group in the 1960s, working shoulder-to-shoulder with people who would become some of the most important leaders in the movement. (If you haven’t, you should read Howard Zinn’s powerful book on the subject, SNCC: The New Abolitionists.)

In a strange ironic twist, Professor Stafford’s name and work had come up as early as last week during the research for my current book project. Pioneering folk musician Guy Carawan, credited with introducing the song “We Shall Overcome” to the civil rights movement, spoke to me about SNCC and Stafford’s work.

“These young people were committed and determined,” Carawan told me. “They refused to be cowed or broken and they never wavered in their belief that equality and democracy could exist for all in this country.” It’s true.

Professor Stafford never wavered. His steadfast and humble approach to never giving up was only matched by his enthusiasm to introduce his students to new ideas that could challenge their comfortable, safe ways of thinking.

As with everything else, Professor Stafford battled his illness--cancer--with dignity and humility. He was only 68 and at the time of his death was still a Professor of Urban Planning and Policy at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School. According to Village Voice columnist Tom Robbins, Professor Stafford “was one of the city's foremost analysts of the impact of urban policies on the poor.” Professor Stafford’s 40-plus year career of civil rights activism, sharp economic policy analysis, and exemplary scholarship (he published over 100 articles) remains a model for us all.

For Kevin and me, Walter Stafford will always be “Professor Stafford,” a modern-day lamplighter always seeking truth and justice, even when confronted with insurmountable odds. He will remain one of a only handful of educators we have both known that never stopped caring, never stopped pushing, never stopped believing that justice was just around the corner.

Our lives are better for knowing him, this country is a better because of him, and if we are to learn anything from the measure of the man Professor Stafford was, it’s to accept our inherent duty and responsibility to help create a truly democratic society where justice, peace, and freedom are the norm, not the exception.