In Commemoration of Alex Willingham

[Editor’s note: This notice was corrected on 9/19/23 to reflect the fact that Adolph Reed, Jr., was not an alumnus of Southern University, as stated in the original version.]

Williams faculty and staff,

I write, as promised, in commemoration of our late colleague Alex Wesley Willingham, Professor of Political Science, who passed away last Tuesday, August 29, in Quincy, Mass.

In his field-defining scholarship and teaching, and also in his political action, Alex focused on Southern politics, and racial discrimination’s impact on political access and representation. His work, collected in important volumes such as Beyond the Color Line?: Race, Representation, and Community in the New Century, was influential in both academic and activist circles.

Alex was born in Bradley, Ark., in 1940, the son of Asa and Minnie Ola (Smith) Willingham. He graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Shreveport, La., as did his future wife, Jennett. He earned his B.A. from Southern University and his M.A. from the University of Iowa, both in political science, before completing a Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina. His thesis was titled Black Political Thought in the United States: A Characterization. Meanwhile, Alex and Jennett also raised two sons, Mweusi ’90 and Kwame.

Alex became involved in activism early on, participating in protests on the Southern campus and in the surrounding Baton Rouge area, and continuing his political engagement at UNC, especially around issues of civil rights and voting rights. He also did some work in Arkansas with the campaign of Ron Dellums, who went on to serve thirteen terms in Congress. Alex’s early theoretical work, meanwhile, was being influenced by scholars like Harold Cruse, who had recently published his classic The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.

After a brief stint on the faculty at Southern during the early 1970s, Alex joined Atlanta University (now Clark-Atlanta University) as associate professor of political science. During this period he was also developing a lifelong friendship with Adolph Reed, Jr., now Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, whom he had met while the two were students at UNC. Professor Reed recalls, “Alex was a great, dear friend for nearly all my adult life, one of those connections that’s in effect family. Before he was my teacher and adviser, he was a primary confidant, sounding board, and hanging partner and then later one of my very closest colleagues. He was also one the most astute students and critics of black American politics of the 20th century. His work stood out for its concreteness and conceptual clarity; he once remarked that the hyphen often reflects a failure to make sharp analytical distinctions. He was a theorist, practitioner, and activist, but all three were elements of a single, seamless endeavor of understanding and improving the world. He was remarkably gifted at encouraging and challenging his students and the people around him, and he was uncommonly honest and principled, loyal and generous, an exemplary friend and parent. He is still one of the smallest handful of readers I have in mind for whatever I write.”

Alex left Atlanta University and academia in 1979, working for the next decade as a columnist for the Shreveport Sun, staff member at the ACLU, research fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation and research director at the Southern Regional Council.

In the late 1980s he returned to teaching and was recruited by Williams as associate professor of political science, then promoted to full professor in 1994. He taught here until his retirement and also served as chair of what was then the African American Studies Program and of the Department of Political Science, as director of the Multicultural Center (now the Davis Center) and of the W. Ford Schumann Faculty Fellow in Democratic Studies. His publications during this period included the co-edited volume Communities in Economic Crisis: Appalachia and the South (Temple University Press, 1990), as well as numerous articles on topics from voting rights and community empowerment to Pan-Africanism in Black America.

Frederick L. Schuman Professor of International Relations Michael MacDonald recalls, “Alex maintained an abiding sense of justice. He instinctively identified with underdogs and brought his commitments to his public life, scholarship, teaching, and community involvement. His causes were tangible. He also exhibited genuine respect and care for everyone he met, a gentleman in the true sense of the word. He was deeply Southern and always attached to the memory of his wife of many years, Jennett.”

Alex was also widely known for his quick and critical wit. As another colleague, Cathy Johnson, James Phinney Baxter III Professor of Political Science, put it, “Alex was quiet, thoughtful and kind. He had, though, a wicked sense of humor. You had to listen carefully or you’d miss his sarcastic and very funny comments. When I started at Williams, it meant the world to me to have him as a senior colleague.”

During Alex’s life in Williamstown his activism evolved along with his scholarship. He consulted or worked with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Jury Project, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Mississippi Rural Legal Services and the Southern Poverty Law Center, among others. He gave media interviews and published scores of letters to the editor on topics including voting rights, the Patriot Act and civil liberties, the Obama presidency, and the ethics and politics of charter schools. He served on the boards of the Berkshire Food Project and the Highlander Center in New Market, Tenn., and co-founded the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, whose own commemoration of Alex lauded him as “a true luminary in our field.”

Alex’s deep engagement extended to his work with students, in and out of the classroom. Preston H. Smith II, Class of 1926 Professor of Politics at Mt. Holyoke College, says, “When I was a dean at Williams, Alex was always eager to help support BSU and other student groups, and was especially interested in programming that fueled campus intellectual life. In scholarly terms, he had a deep understanding of how racial politics co-existed and interacted with class and other factors. Not only could he see the connections between theory and practice, but he had a gift for helping students make those same connections and achieve a complex understanding of the forces shaping politics in America.”

To cite the college’s citation on Alex’s 2012 retirement, “It can be said that countless of our students have benefited from being taught by someone who not only studied the Civil Rights Movement, but lived it.”

Alex Willingham was predeceased in 1995 by his beloved wife Jennett, a lifelong educator whose career included time at the Williams College Children’s Center. He is survived by the couple’s two sons, Mweusi Lumumba Willingham of Quincy, Mass., and Kwame Kimani Willingham of Santiago, Chile, and their children.

Interment services will be private, in keeping with Alex’s wishes. In lieu of flowers or other donations, the family welcomes contributions to The Highlander Research and Education Center and the Booker T. Washington High School Alumni Foundation (Shreveport, Louisiana)

To add to the Book of Memories, visit Alex’s obituary on

Our thoughts go out to Alex’s loved ones, friends and former colleagues,