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 on April 24 in hospice care in Lincoln, Mass. He was 88.
His wife, Marion (Dusser de Barenne) Kilson, said the cause was congestive heart failure.
A son of a Methodist minister, Professor 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.
He also found vigorous public debate irresistible during his nearly 40 years as a professor of government at Harvard.
“Lord, oh, Lord, Brother Kilson loved combat,” Dr. West said in a telephone interview.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard professor, writer and filmmaker, wrote of Professor Kilson in an email, “He 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.”
Professor 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,” Professor 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.”