Robert Schultz III: Pursuing a Path Toward Social Justice
Alma graduate W. Robert Schultz III has spent decades working on issues ranging from the death penalty to marriage equality.
W. Robert Schultz III has dedicated his life to making the world a better place.
Schultz, a 1977 graduate of Alma College, has worked on disability and immigrant rights, death penalty abolition and marriage equality. He co-founded an organization and magazine for the African-American lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Chicago to combat homophobia and racism — and he is a founding member of a neighborhood political organization to support a gay Latino man (and youngest person ever) on the Chicago City Council. He also serves on the board of the Howard Brown Health Center, the Midwest’s largest LGBT health provider.
“Trying to give people hope is an important part of the work that I do,” he says. “Also making people aware that there might be realities or life outside the world that you’ve lived.”
As an Alma College student, spring term classes to Washington, D.C., and the Philadelphia Life Center with John Agria and Verne Bechill propelled Schultz toward social justice. He learned that change doesn’t happen in a vacuum; activism involves strategizing and organizing.
True to the nature of activism, his interest in it didn’t happen in a vacuum.
“I was raised as a civil rights diaper baby,” he says.
He was born in Florida when segregation still existed, and the amusement park in his neighborhood in Louisville, Ky., was off-limits to African-Americans.
“My father kept in a prominent place in our household — almost everywhere we moved — the headline from the local African-American newspaper regarding Brown v. Board of Education,” he says. “He was the first African-American to be allowed to attend pharmacy school in Kentucky.”
After graduating with a political science degree from Alma, he went to North Carolina Central University to get his law degree.
He returned to Michigan to work for the Catholic Church on an amnesty program that provided legal status and support to undocumented people. Even though he had grown up in west Michigan — he went to high school in Wyoming, outside of Grand Rapids — he hadn’t realized just how much the agricultural industry there depended on migrant workers.
“I was just appalled at the living conditions that I saw in some of the camps,” he says.
He spent about eight years working for Access Living, a disability rights organization in Chicago. At the time, public transportation lacked wheelchair lifts, and there weren’t provisions for people who were blind, deaf or hard of hearing.
“I actually walked upstairs in those public housing high-rises that people wouldn’t dare to venture to see people with disabilities,” he says. “I’ve seen some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country, so just being able to bring hope to people like that is important.”
The work he’s most proud of came after that: Abolishing the death penalty and passing marriage equality in Illinois.
When 13 men in Illinois were exonerated for being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to the death penalty, Schultz jumped at the opportunity to get the conversation started. He spent the next 10 years working on the issue, both as a board member of the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty and a field organizer for Amnesty International.
“I organized a couple statewide speaking tours to colleges and communities,” he says. “One of those statewide tours I did with Delbert Tibbs, who had spent time on death row in Florida and was subsequently exonerated.”
Along with two others, he organized a relay race of men who had been wrongfully convicted and released to deliver a signed letter to the governor. Teams of people — including Schultz — drove the men from the execution chambers in Joliet to Governor Ryan in Chicago.
His work helped convince the governor to issue a mass commutation in 2003 — changing the sentences of all 167 people on “death row” at the time to “life in prison.” It still remains the largest mass commutation in U.S. history. Finally, in March 2011, the state of Illinois abolished the death penalty.
“I was standing on the shoulders of giants and other people who plowed the field, and I just helped to plow the field a little bit more,” he says.
On marriage equality, Schultz worked in two legislative districts that were represented by African-Americans.
“I was able to organize enough pressure to get one of those Illinois House members to vote in favor of marriage equality, and the other person, we were able to convince at least not to vote against it,” he says. “He ended up voting ‘present,’ despite being the father of a gay son.”
In November 2013, the Illinois legislature passed a bill legalizing marriage equality.
“Other states have since gone ahead and abolished or repealed their death penalties, and other states have since passed legislation granting marriage equality, but the work I participated in Illinois sort of helped break the dam,” he says.
And this past June, that dam broke completely when the U.S. Supreme Court fully legalized same-sex marriage.
Other measures of success: When the Chicago Black Lesbians and Gays, an organization he co-chaired, was recognized as a member of the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame, as well as Lakeside Pride Music Ensembles, which he helped found 18 years ago. He was in Alma’s Kiltie Marching Band and still plays the drums.
“If someone told me when I was graduating from Alma College that I would have a role in participating in either repealing the death penalty or marriage equality or even working with people with disabilities, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy!’” he says.
“But it happened in my lifetime.”
— Erica Shekell