Obituaries

Martin Kilson, pioneering African-American professor at Harvard, dies at 88

In 2003, Martin Kilson (seated) received an ovation in recognition of his contributions to Harvard.
globe files/2003
In 2003, Martin Kilson (seated) received an ovation in recognition of his contributions to Harvard.

Martin Kilson, a leftist scholar, fierce debater, and follower of W.E.B. Du Bois who became the first tenured African-American professor at Harvard, died April 24 in hospice care in Lincoln. He was 88.

His wife, Marion Dusser de Barenne Kilson, said the cause was congestive heart failure.

A son of a Methodist minister, Dr. Kilson was a prolific writer, an expert on ethnic politics in Africa and the United States, and a mentor to generations of students, among them the writer, teacher, and philosopher Cornel West.

Advertisement

He also found vigorous public debate irresistible during his nearly 40 years as a professor of government at Harvard.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“Lord, oh, Lord, Brother Kilson loved combat,” West told The New York Times.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard professor, writer, and filmmaker, told the Times that Dr. Kilson “prided himself on the role of the gadfly, challenging hierarchies, speaking truth to power and arguing against the grain, all in the name of the pursuit of veritas.”

Dr. Kilson, an avowed integrationist, was already teaching courses in African politics in the 1960s when black students were starting to assert themselves on predominantly white campuses like Harvard.

“Naturally, the Negro wants to lay down the conditions and call the shots, something done for him by the white liberal in an earlier day,” Dr. Kilson told The Harvard Crimson in 1964. “His friendship is not spurned but merely held in abeyance, giving us both time to think over what is going on inside and outside of us.”

Advertisement

Dr. Kilson was a faculty sponsor of the Harvard-Radcliffe Association of African and Afro-American Students. But after the university’s Afro-American studies department was established in 1969, he became disenchanted with its governance, criticizing it as lacking academic rigor and maintaining that it had become an enclave for radical black students.

“Black solidarity forces are distinctly anti-intellectual and anti-achievement in orientation,” he wrote in a provocative 1973 essay about Harvard for The New York Times Magazine. “They indulge in the ‘black magic’ of nationalism, believing that miracles are possible if Negroes display fidelity to black nationalism or separatism and its anti-white attitudes, rituals and symbols.”

Dr. Kilson argued that the radical politics of separatists was an academic dead end.

“It took extraordinary courage in 1969 to challenge Black Panther and black power rhetoric,” the Rev. Eugene Rivers III, a former student of Dr. Kilson’s, told the Times. “And he was right.”

But critics of the professor — including Ewart Guinier, the founding chairman of the Afro-American studies department — disagreed with both his methodologies and his conclusions.

Advertisement

During a debate broadcast by a New York City television station in late 1973, Guinier was scornful of Dr. Kilson, saying he “shouts loudly about rigorous thought, standards and superior white universities, all the while encouraging people to think of him as a major scholar.”

Dr. Kilson responded, “I am certainly not as much of an ideologue as Ewart Guinier.”

Decades later, in “A Companion to African American Studies” (2016), edited by Lewis Gordon and Jane Ann Gordon, Dr. Kilson wrote that Harvard’s Afro-American studies department did not flower until the 1990s, when Gates became its chairman.

He described Gates as a “top-rank academic-entrepreneurial black scholar.”

In 2002, Dr. Kilson challenged Randall L. Kennedy, a distinguished African-American professor at Harvard Law School, over the title of Kennedy’s book “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.”

Writing in Black Commentator, an online journal, Dr. Kilson called the use of the epithet an insult to black people and to former Harvard teachers like Du Bois, Ralph J. Bunche, and John Hope Franklin. He suggested that Kennedy’s goal was to “assist white Americans in feeling comfortable” in their use of the epithet.

Kennedy told The Crimson that Dr. Kilson “seems to think that all of America has the same view of this term. This view is palpably incorrect. How does he know what my motive is?”

The two did not speak for a long time, but “a couple of years ago, I saw him at a gathering and we embraced,” Kennedy told the Times. “I was glad to see him, and I’d like to think he was glad to see me.”

He added that “being castigated by Dr. Kilson was a rite of passage.”

In 1979, Dr. Kilson became one of the first professors to be accused in a formal complaint of sexual harassment in the years after Harvard instituted procedures for filing such complaints, the Globe reported at the time.

Harvard reprimanded Dr. Kilson for sexually harassing a freshman woman during his office hours. “I committed an act of impropriety,” he told the Globe that December.

He said he did not intend to offend the student. “My general affectionate air could be misinterpreted,” Dr. Kilson said.

The student told the Globe that he patted her hair, kissed the top of her head, and tried to kiss her on the lips during a visit to his office in November.

Henry Rosovsky, a Harvard dean, required Dr. Kilson to write a letter of apology to the student.

Martin Luther Kilson Jr. was born on Feb. 14, 1931, in East Rutherford, N.J., and grew up in Ambler, Pa., a factory town.

His mother, Louisa (Laws) Kilson, was a homemaker. Martin Sr. was not the only minister in the family; there were preachers on both sides, including young Martin’s great-great-grandfather, Isaac Lee, a freed black who founded an African Methodist Episcopal church in Maryland in 1848.

Dr. Kilson encountered Du Bois, the pioneering urban sociologist who was a founder of the NAACP, as a freshman at Lincoln University, a historically black college in Oxford, Pa. Du Bois had come to the campus to encourage its students to become part of the educated, community-based black leadership he called “The Talented Tenth,” calling on them to help improve the lives of needy black people.

Du Bois remained an influence throughout Dr. Kilson’s career. In his book “Transformation of the African-American Intelligentsia, 1880-2012” (2014), he wrote that “it is a moral imperative for today’s variant of Du Bois’s ‘Talented Tenth’ to mobilize its new socioeconomic and political resources to help ameliorate some of the social crises that now plague about 40 percent of African-American families.”

After receiving his master’s and doctorate in political science from Harvard, he did field work in Sierra Leone under a Ford Foundation fellowship, studying the political system in that country as it shifted from British control to independence in 1961.

When he returned to the United States that year, he became a research associate at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Harvard hired him as a lecturer in 1962. He was named an assistant professor two years later and granted tenure in 1968.

“He took a lot of pride in that accomplishment,” his daughter Hannah Kilson told the Times. “But it isn’t what made him a decent person. He was a decent man with a strong moral compass that guided and informed us, and a sharp tongue and a sharp pen.”

Dr. Kilson served as the Frank G. Thomson professor of government at Harvard from 1988 to 1999, when he retired from teaching.

In addition to his wife, a social anthropologist and college administrator, and his daughter Hannah, Dr. Kilson leaves another daughter, Jennifer Kilson-Page; a son, Peter; six grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and a sister, Gwendolyn Coleman.

West and Rivers recalled Dr. Kilson as a curmudgeonly mentor who nurtured scholars like them over long conversations, often at dinner at his house near Harvard or at his summer home in New Hampshire.

“So many of us wouldn’t exist without him,” West said.

Acolytes, he said, were drawn to his “joy in the life of the mind, his discipline, his rigor, his unbelievable devotion and his sharing of that with young people.”

Material from The New York Times and the Globe was used in this report.