Select Video Clip...
Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
BOND: Governor Wilder, thank you so much for being with us.
WILDER: Always good to be with you Julian, and it's Doug, not Governor Wilder, you know that.
BOND: Well Doug, it’s our great pleasure. I want to begin with some questions about Brown v. Board of Education. What did it mean to you at the time it was decided?
WILDER: It meant everything to me because I had literally -- literally -- given up on what they called "the system." Working, I had been to Korea fighting in a war that, for other people’s freedom and couldn’t have any here in my own country. So I got out of there, in December of ’53, just a few months before Brown was decided. It was just totally disconcerting -- everything I didn’t believe in -- not only in the system. I didn’t even want to continue in school -- my major was chemistry.
And when Brown v. Board of Education came down I said, “God have mercy, the system works! You mean nine white men have said that they were wrong? I’m in the wrong field! I better get into law, I better get into something of this social engineering.” So it literally turned my life around.
BOND: Really, and it turned you toward law as a profession?
WILDER: Yes, it did. It made me have to reconsider. I liked chemistry. I didn’t love it.
I worked for a year’s worth trying to save a little money. And then ultimately I wrote to Howard, which was the only law school I think that would have accepted me, not just because I couldn’t go to school in Virginia but my background was so spotty. And I didn’t have the prerequisite study courses for law. And I just can’t tell you -- and I say it on a regular basis, Brown v. Board of Education was sort of like a rebirth for me.
BOND: What did you think at the time it was going to mean?
WILDER: I thought it was opening the doors because I had known that the civil rights engineers and those persons who had been involved with opening doors focused on education. Always on education. So if you could open those doors of education and make opportunities available, then that would mean that subsequent generations of people would see the need and it would almost revert to Booker T. Washington’s lifting, you know, people up by your own boot straps. But by the same token, bringing in some of the things that W.E.B. Du Bois talked about in “The Talented Tenth” -- those people who would become educated would further educate others and that would be the key to equality in America.
BOND: So you had this optimistic view --
BOND: But what did it turn out to mean?
WILDER: Unfortunately, it turned out to mean that people thought it was a matter of integration, a matter of bringing, forcing whites and blacks to be together against will. It caused annexations, it caused white flight, it caused destruction of cities, in terms of infrastructure, in terms of business, and it resulted in an animosity that was unwarranted. Particularly when you consider it was against the law in Virginia and other places in the South as you well know, to even teach and to educate persons of color. And I think it was misconstrued, it sometimes continues to be misconstrued, as it spills over into what some people call quotas, when you're talking about affirmative action, you’re talking about equal access. And I think Brown v. Board of Education still needs to be the hallmark in terms of recognizing what took place, but it needs to be built upon. And we need to go further.
BOND: Now, you said it changed your professional direction.
BOND: What else did it mean to you? How has it impacted you personally?
WILDER: Well, it, I was never involved in that directly in terms of civil activism and civil rights and such. But, personally, when Spottswood Robinson was chosen to be the dean at our law school, he at that time was the registered agent for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. And, he had asked Thurgood Marshall to appoint me to take his place, and I said, “Wow! To take -- just to be even in the room with these guys!" And it, it enabled me to sit in the moot court hearings that, people like Dutch [Ernest Nathan] Morial from New Orleans would be there, and [Alexander Pierre] Tureaud from Louisiana, Bob [William Robert] Ming from Chicago, all these civil rights giants. And what it -- it redirected me to believe that making a living was one thing but fighting for the rights of other people and making certain that those who have been left out of the mainstream of American life was another, and that’s -- it made me commit myself to doing those things and I chose the law to do it because the Brown v. Board of Education decision was that being that it took place so I aligned myself with a lot of those people and a lot of those causes. And luckily I was associated with some of those cases.
BOND: Let me go into your background a little bit. Who were the people who had been most significant in helping you develop your talents?
WILDER: My mother, first -- never believed in anything other than education and no gripe about it. Get it and don’t complain about it. My father was a disciplinarian. But my mother was that person who really encouraged me. My older sister, who was a school teacher, she encouraged me. I had an older brother who never had the opportunities that I had because he had to work and couldn’t go to college. But these family things were so strong with me. And then you couldn’t leave out the, the school teachers that I had, and they would encourage me and say, “Okay, you look, you look like you’re doing pretty good in school but you can do better.”
And even in law school, I had a professor who would say -- Herb Reid, who was, I thought the world of him -- he would say, “I’m going to fail you.” I say “What?” He said “Cause you can do better.” And he made me a better student, so it’s those people who along the way -- themselves who didn’t have, who hadn’t achieved -- Herb Reid couldn't have gone -- he was a Harvard grad. He could’ve chose to go on to Wall Street. Barack Obama could.
But he chose to kind of hard to work to educate. And in my case, it showed me what a little effort could make a difference at the local levels. You don’t try to change the world at the world level. Tip O’Neill [Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr.] speaks to that, as you know. All politics is local. But government, local government is that which was the nation, as small businesses are those businesses which contribute to the wealth and bounty.
BOND: Now, are there particular events, either historical or personal, that affected you as you were coming along, as you're growing up, as you're going to school -- things that, like the Brown case , that you recalled that said, “No I can do better, or I can go in another direction"?
WILDER: Well, yeah you know I -- segregation on the street cars, and we lived at the end of the street car line, so when you got on the street car it was empty for the most part. And my mother -- I would be five or six years old -- and she would say, “Come on, let's go on a little further back.” I'd say, “Well I, I wanna sit up here.” She would say, “No, let’s -- let’s sit here. Let’s go back to the back." I say, “What’s wrong?" “I will explain it to you later.” She never, ever told me that I couldn’t. She never, ever told me that, that it was racial. She would always say, “I’ll explain it to you later. Right now, this is what you should have to do." The other things that impress me was when, I would not only be able to try on a suit, as you know, anything in a department store -- that was racial. What really got me in terms of recognizing that I could do some things -- I would ask her, for instance, about the Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and I would ask her, “What does this word inalienable mean?” And she said, “What does it mean? It means that no one can take it from you.” I say, “Well, does that Declaration of Independence apply to me?” You know, is what it’s saying -- and she says, "Yes. And when your mother tells you something and you love your mother, no one can take that from you." So, she never ever told any of us that we couldn’t achieve at the highest possible level, but she always insisted we had to work harder to get it done.
BOND: Did you have the feeling that even though you weren’t going to school with white children that you were somehow in competition with them and that some day you might see them face to face, meet them head to head?
WILDER: When I was working there for the summer, I would be driving an elevator in an office building downtown, and I would see some of the people getting on at my age. And they’d be working in those offices. And they’d be doing the actual work. And one fellow, got to be real friendly with him, and I would ask him, I said, “Well, you just finished high school, or you’re in school?” And he said, “Yes.” And I said, “Me too!” I said, “What are you doing?” And he would tell me and I would say, “I could do that! I can do those things.” We struck up a good friendship, and a very nice friendship, and yet, what I found, that the competition level was such that it wasn’t based on competition at that level. It was based on race. I remember when I finished up college I was drafted. I couldn’t get a real job, so I went to the Employment Office, which was on the state capital grounds, and I asked this guy -- I said, "I want a job, I’m a chemist, I had a degree in chemistry." And he said, “Well, we don’t have any vacancies for you.” And he said “Well we do have something that you might find interesting.” I said “What is that” and he said “Vacancies for cook at the Hanover School for Boys, they need a cook.” I said, “I don’t -- I can’t cook!” And he said, “You can learn.” The amazing thing I found later on, Julian, when I came back, that finance building was located on the capitol grounds. And I would come out of the governor’s mansion and looked at that finance building and said, “Wow, isn’t that something.” It’s a dead mint. That finance building now is being renamed where the employment office was located, being renamed for Oliver Hill.
BOND: Oh really?
WILDER: Today, yes
BOND: Tell us something about the neighborhood, the community in which you grew. What figures there or institutions there molded you and shaped you? Who are the people and things that created whom you are today?
WILDER: The -- it ran the gamut from the Masons, from the Elks Parade, seeing people in uniform and precision, from the people who were in the neighborhood themselves -- the barbershops, the shoeshine parlor, the riddler across the street -- they always encouraged those of us who were younger to get education. Many of them would say things like “I couldn’t get one myself. I had to drop out of school. I had to help this one. Don’t you end up like I ended up. You get smart. Don’t pay any attention to other people telling you things that you can’t do.” Well, I would go to the barbershop, I would like to store what I learned and what I knew, and people would bet on me. The older guys would say, “Well this kid is saying something and we’ll bet on it, whether it was a sports thing or whether it was a political thing.” I remember once having to describe that the war started, World War II, and how it was Pearl Harbor that was bombed. And this guy was like, “Oh no, it was in the Philippines.” And then I explained, “Well, no, it was the Hawaiian archipelago.” “Well what does that mean?” But in those instances, even those who were shining shoes, they would have said -- what would they have been -- “Listen to this kid.” They always encouraged us and in the process they enabled me to have a forum that I could express myself. Today, we don’t have that. We don’t have that, that exhortation. We don’t have that encouragement. We don’t have people telling you, “Look you’ve got to get an education because if you don’t you’re going to be lost.” I remember in terms of voting we had a yellow book that would hang in the barber shop, that if you were a registered voter, your name would be in that book. And remember, this was put up by the Richmond Crusade for Voters years ago. And it got to a point where the guys in the barber shop would appoint me as the sheriff, almost. For a guy started running his mouth -- you don’t want a barbershop where everybody’s running their mouth. If your name isn’t in that book, you can’t talk. And I wasn’t sure if I was, what, I was fifteen or sixteen -- I loved it. I said, "He can’t talk." So, education, voting, all of that was community. Even in the instances in which we had complete community -- as you know, ‘cause you had everything was separated --bakery, barbershops, laundries, cleaners, you name it -- all those things were there. And yet today we have pockets of desolation. We had a loving community. And people cared about it. Those youngsters were like myself who were in that community, so we belonged to that community and the community belonged to us. We could go into anyone’s homes and eat! And you didn’t need to lock the doors, you didn’t lock the screens, and people would feed you, they would care for you, just as they would care for their own.
BOND: Now, you’re named after Frederick Douglass and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
BOND: What impact did this naming have on you? When did you find out who these people were, who had given you -- who you'd been given their names?
WILDER: Well --
BOND: What does that mean to you?
WILDER: Well, it meant everything to me after my mother explained it to me, and ‘cause she would give reasons why she would name all of us. And I would say, “Well, why did you name me, what I was named after?” She said, “Well, you know, Paul Laurence Dunbar was a great poet and he wrote beautifully and he wrote all kinds of things." And I said, “Well, that’s interesting." So I said, “Okay, what about Frederick Douglass?” Well, she said, “He was fighting against slavery and he was a slave.” I said, “He was a slave?" She said, "Yes," and then she would explain to me what that meant because my father’s parents were slaves and she said, “Just like your father’s parents, and they rose above it, and they could do all these things. One was a great orator, he could speak, another was a great writer. And you -- if you’re going to be named after these guys, you got to measure up.” So it made me practice speaking, and it made me practice, writing. My mother was the best crossword puzzle solver that I've ever met. And she knew words -- she was a high school grad. But there were no words I could ever spring on her that she didn’t know, so she would always challenge me on a regular basis. So it made me a better writer, I could read better, and it, I hope, it helped me be able to speak a little bit better.
BOND: Were there other relatives besides your immediate family who served as mentors or influences or people in the community that aren’t related by blood who carried out the same roles?
WILDER: Oh, yes. I had a friend of mine -- he’s a friend of the family named Roland Ealey. He was a lawyer and he would stop by to pick us up to take us to Sunday School -- he taught Sunday School. As a matter of fact, he was one of the fellows that wrote the letter for me to get into Howard Law School. And he would constantly encourage me to do whatever it is I could do. And when you look back on these things, Julian, and you recognize that no person is self-made. Communities cared about us, we cared about them. Some of the school teachers that we had who weren’t making good money -- I would remember when I was waiting tables at all of the hotels and country clubs in Virginia, how the head waiters on occasion, would pull them aside and said, “Look, we’re going to try to give you as much extra work as you can. But stay in school, and don’t you come in and work full time. I did that. I dropped out because of money. You stay in." So I had -- there’s so many people to thank you can’t begin to name them all!
BOND: Now, when you were in school, in the lower grades, before you got to college, did you ever have the opportunity to exercise any leadership positions? Class president?
WILDER: Oh, yeah.
BOND: That kind of thing? How did that come about?
WILDER: Well, I ran my mouth all the time and I would get five A’s and five demerits -- if I were coming up now they’d give me Ritalin. Things like that -- but I always wanted to show that I knew, I always wanted to be up front, so I was always getting the role of the prince in the play or the king in the play or some, some lead figure who could speak. I always wanted to be up front. I always wanted to show that I knew. And sometimes I pushed a little too hard. But in the process, it made you know that you had to be ready.
I had a great aunt who would ask all of us, all of our family members to come to perform at her silver teas. So you had to recite poetry or you either had to sing a song or you either had to do something. And it enabled us to have a presence in terms of a public, to be able to be accountable for yourself. So it wasn’t anything exciting in our household. As you and your household, it was expected that you knew how to read and how to write and how to recite and how to discover the other things that went on in the world by other people, years ago, and how it relates to what you’re doing. This is why you would know who I was following, why is it important for us to know what the Greeks did? And what does Archimedes and how are those people so interested in doing things and who are we? And so it made you a little step ahead, that you had to stay ahead if you wanted to be a leader.
BOND: Now, was there a point in grade school, high school, or college that you began to think, "I am a leader. I can be a leader. I can lead others and make others follow me"? Did that come?
WILDER: That did. Through elementary school, through high school, until the end of high school I got a little disappointed because I didn’t see any scholarship money coming. And I didn’t -- we didn’t have any money, and I was just shocked that I didn’t -- there was nobody to talk to about any scholarship coming my way. We didn’t have these great foundations, grants.
WILDER: So I slowed up considerably. When I went to college I was young, I was only sixteen, I got more interested in some other things -- you know who they were. I played a lot of intramural sports, I cut class to play ping pong, I did whatever I could to hang out. The next year I was eligible to join the fraternity, and I studied hard for that, and after that I started hanging out. And so I think in my sophomore and junior years I really sloughed off and then found it necessary to regain and try to get out of college. And I didn’t see too much -- I didn’t exercise too much leadership ability in college. More so in high school and elementary school. When I got drafted and went to the army, I started re-exercising that discrimination. I recall, one sergeant there that said, “Look, you know, this is not fair. We’re not getting promoted and everyone else is. We need to bring this to the attention of the major.” Who said, that “to report to him of this discrimination.” And I said, “Well, are you sure? Then we should do the following." "I wouldn’t lie about what we should do." So I said -- we pull back off the line to take showers, and he said “Well, let’s march down to see the major tomorrow.” He said, “Let’s go in full battle gear.” And I said, “We should!” Two bandoliers of ammunition, grenades, steel butt rifles on our shoulders. And I said, “But now, you’re the sergeant, you have to march us down.” So it got to a point that I was exercising that degree of leadership -- went the major, and told him the problems, I had to push them just tell it, but once we started telling him I was called upon to represent several guys who were charged with court martial offenses and pretty much got what we wanted in that. So in Korea, I picked up where I left off in high school. But college was dismal for me in terms of leadership. As a matter of fact, if you had to bet on where I’d end up in college, it’d be at the bottom.
BOND: You mentioned a Sunday School teacher. Tell us about the influence of the Church on your life.
WILDER: Well, my father was the -- he was the deacon and he also was the trustee. He was chairman of the finance committee, which I always found interesting. He was working with the Consolidated Insurance Company, and I said, "Well, you know, why are you the one that’s always asking for the money on Sunday mornings?" And he would explain that. The Church was very heavy in influencing in my life. We all had to go to Sunday School, we all had to go to Church. And we all understood the role of the Church. I remember so vividly as some people who still recall, every Sunday morning there was a group that sang on the radio called Wings Over Jordan. And they would sing that theme song, "Swing Low Sweet Chariot, coming for to carry me home." So the Church would remind us of where we were in terms of our social structure, and the minister, as politely as he could, would speak to the need for uplifting, and the need for curtailing, and also the need for moving past from where we were ensconced. And so the Church molded us and my judgment to recognize civility and not be striking out, but at the same time not being satisfied with where you were.
BOND: So it was an impetus to sort of social engagement, civic engagement?
WILDER: Yes. As a matter of fact, the Church would be the place where you would have your meetings. There was no other place to go if you were going to have an NAACP meeting, if you were going to have a helping hand meeting, if you were going to talk about how to change the plight of a neighborhood and to contribute to people who were less fortunate. And I -- my oldest sister was very much interested in NAACP work and making certain that young leaders were involved and it spilled over with me. I remember so vividly, she brought a group -- brought Paul Robeson to Richmond to speak, I was about fourteen or fifteen. And boy, I just couldn’t tell you how impressed I was. I was watching this great man! And he looked out into the audience and he said, “I just found out that this audience is segregated. And I had promised I would never appear before another segregated audience.” And I -- he walked off the stage!
WILDER: Left it! Three thousand people sitting in the mosque. And Herbert Sevilar (ph.), they went back and they literally begged him, said, “Look, we’ll have to give these people their money back. We're broke. This will break us!” And he came back he said, “I don’t want to see these people hurt. That is the only reason that I am coming back.” And he went out and he spoke a little bit before he gave his performance, his musical performance. Man, I was enthralled! I said, “I see him sitting here," seeing this great man.
I remember shortly after that, the guys in the barber shop, telling me said, “Look. Jackie Robinson’s just been brought into baseball. We’re going to ride up tomorrow night so we can get to Sunday morning’s -- get to next morning’s game. Now you’re small enough to fit in the back, you can ride with us.” “I can go with you guys to see Jackie Robinson?!” And we went up there. And that was the game in which Enos Slaughter spiked him as he was playing first base and reached over. And all the members of the St. Louis Cardinal ball club, which was my team, came out onto the dugout with their bats in hand and the Brooklyn Dodgers came to his rescue. And they stood there and Jackie just grabbed his ankle, looked, shrugged it off, and stayed in the game. I said, “Wow.” Now, I was disappointed because Enos Slaughter was one of my heroes. But he ran into and hit a storm in terms of the protest they gathered. So I felt so lucky. Paul Robeson one year, and the very next year, Jackie Robinson -- how lucky could a guy be to see those things?
BOND: In your education -- you said that in college you didn’t exercise your potential as a student.
WILDER: That’s an understatement.
BOND: But I wonder if, in grade school, high school, college, there were opportunities, like student government and things like that where you were active. Where you were saying, “I can be in charge of this.”
WILDER: Yeah I did that all through elementary and grade school. I’ll say this in college -- I was so fascinated with other subjects that when my ethics professor was speaking, I would just get carried off -- oh, in chemistry class, I would take the professor over into talking about world events and what was happening in India. What was happening with Adam Powell, and the Bandung Conference, why they were saying things that America’s turning its back on the rest of the world, with its racist activities here. And yet, I never sought any offices of student government leadership. But I was always involved in protests and arguments and making certain that students were heard. We had a right to be heard and a right to be seen as well.
BOND: Let me ask you about the occasions where you were redirecting the class, the chemistry teacher being asked about the Bandung Conference, and others being asked to stray away from their subject. Where does it come from in you, that you can do this and that you ought to do this? That you ought to -- I don’t want to say take over the class, but change the direction of the class?
WILDER: Well, it I think it came from saying, pretty much, “Why am I here? And what are you doing when you finish? What is knowledge? What is the acquisition of it and why aren’t you getting it?” And so, some of my friends from college, who had been in the military, who were older, who had come back to college -- I would read things that they had written. They had said it or heard it written, or spoken, and I could recite them as if it were me myself, having heard them. I think on so many occasions, it was always this desire to change. I remember at that time, much was going on in Africa, particularly Kenya. And Jomo Kenyatta was the spirit behind the liberation of Kenya. I knew friends of mine in Virginia Union who were from Nigeria, and they spoke so fondly of [Nnamdi] Azikiwe and the great liberator in Nigeria. And I was saying, “If these people, they are doing these things, what are we doing here?" Or, "Why are those people saying we’ve got to go there? To do what we need to do here. Let’s do what we gotta do right here. Let’s raise our battles here. Let’s do the kinds of things that we need to do. Let’s be heard." And that’s why I said, “When the thing is right, the time is always right to do it.” You can’t afford to wait for someone to tell you when it’s time to do something.
BOND: You know, this is a little off the point, but there is an untold story about the influence these African students at historically black colleges had on American students in pushing them by saying just what you said, "We’re freeing our country -- "
BOND: "We’re going to run our country -- "
BOND: "When are you going to eat at a lunch counter?" It was just a great untold story.
WILDER: It is a great untold story, and some of them may not have experienced it, but I know and you know, because you’ve experienced the same thing with these people who came to Morehouse, they came to Virginia Union -- and they would say in essence, “Look, don’t look down at us. We’re doing things, what are you doing about riding in the back of the bus? What are you doing about sitting in the street car counters. No, we’re not going to come here to live we going back to our countries to govern. And why are you not governing?" And so these are the kinds of things that made you ask your fellow students, made you ask your professors -- it wasn’t going to be in the media. You were never going to be encouraged by that. You were never going to be encouraged by the general society. And so, if you understood that if change was to come, it had to come from within. You had to do it. Or else the land, as it is with life, you plow new ground or you watch the weeds grow.
BOND: But something you said about the media prompted my memory -- you were fortunate in a way to live in a city that had a vibrant black newspaper, The Richmond Afro-American.
BOND: And I just showed my students, the class at American University last night the front page of the Richmond Afro announcing that -- and I can’t remember her name, she just died. The woman who -- ?
BOND: No, the bus woman who --
WILDER: Oh, Ms. Tensley!
BOND: No, no, no.
WILDER: Oh, yes.
BOND: Jeez, what’s her name?
WILDER: I know who you’re talking about
BOND: She got in a fight with the driver.
BOND: She got in a fight with the driver. She kicked the driver.
WILDER: Irene Morgan.
BOND: Irene Morgan! Yes. I showed them the front page of the Afro, and I imagine that you must have seen in the Afro just a parade of black figures who were doing things in other parts of the country, and you must have had to reflect on them. You know, why isn’t someone doing that here in Richmond?
WILDER: You know, you bring up an interesting point again. My classmate, Bruce Boynton --
BOND: It’s your -- Bruce, oh yes. Talk about him.
WILDER: My classmate was coming through Richmond, going back to where he lived in Alabama.
BOND: In Selma, he's from Selma.
WILDER: From Selma, Alabama. And he stopped at the Stay Away Trailways Bus Station to the lunch counter and I said, “No, not you. Because you’re a Negro.” So he called me and I was not in. He then called Henry Marsh and Marsh was in, but Marsh referred him to the Hill Tucker Firm. And they took that case. That was the case that ended discrimination in international buses.
BOND: Boynton vs. --
WILDER: Boynton vs. Virginia! And so, someone would say it, said to me, “This was your classmate?” “Yeah.” “Why didn’t — why couldn’t he just keep on going?” I said, "Because he decided that enough was enough. And decided that we were going, going to stick the ground, put it in the ground here." It was those types of things! I also was sitting in the court room when the judge to the young fellow did four jobs in Richmond, and said, “No, I’m not going to lose.” And didn’t. In that case, ultimately, the NAACP took it, won it -- ending discrimination in the court rooms. It’s those singular instances when people have to decide for themselves what their lives are going to be like. And they very rarely get mentioned, they rarely get the headlines, they rarely get any recognition. But it’s a combination of things that contribute to the leadership of the masses expressed in many instances by a few but that germ had to have been planted some place.
BOND: And I wonder to what degree the presence of the newspaper, The Afro, brought these things to you, if they happened away from Richmond and made you think, “Gee, this could happen here.”
WILDER: I said the same thing when I ran for governor, and I told Tom [Thomas J.] Bradley, I said, “You should have been the first elected African American governor in this country.” I said, “You got a bad shake. Even your own people turned on you. Everybody, 'Well, you didn’t spend enough time' -- they didn’t understand how big California was! They wanted you to spend all your time in what?” And he looked at me and he said, “Well, it was kind of you to say that.” And I said, “No, I meant it.” I told Louis Stokes, I said, “When your brother ran and became mayor of Cleveland, that told me that those kinds of things were possible." The same thing in Gary, Indiana, when --
BOND: Dick [Richard G.] Hatcher.
WILDER: Dick Hatcher ran for mayor. So it’s no single thing that brings things to the fore, it’s a combination. And those single acts of leadership. Carl Stokes in Cleveland, Tom Bradley in California, the people who ran in other places make it possible for Deval Patrick to recognize it and makes it possible also for Barack Obama to know, "Yes, we can do this in America because we have started that process." Why not? Why give up on Americans to believe that they are still stuck in the past? Ours is a constant evolution. And that’s what freedom is. A constant evolution. And fighting for it and leadership is a tautology. It speaks for itself, it defines itself. It moves. It doesn't wait to be defined.
BOND: You know, thinking about your own career, it may have been easy for you to say, “I think I can get elected to the State Senate.” You know, risky, but “I think I can do it.” It had to be much more of a risk to say, "I think I can be Lieutenant Governor." No one had ever done that before. You know you had state senators are all around the country. But nobody had done that before. And then to say, “I think I can be governor.” That’s a big leap.
BOND: How’d you make those leaps?
WILDER: You have to believe it. You see because, if you’re good enough as you say, to be in the Senate -- stayed there for years and afforded chairmanships of various committees and voted tops of etc., etc., and if you become lieutenant governor, the arithmetic progression suggests that you move up or out. And I’d made up my mind -- I need to go up or out. Because I’m not -- I don’t want to get a gold pin for having been here for as long as the next guy. And I want to show that Americans believed what they say in this creed of new freedom, and pursuit of happiness, and that our words to our great documents are not just words -- they could be and should be implemented. But it’s our responsibility, our job to put them to the test at every possible opportunity. And in so doing, we’ve got to be prepared. That’s why education is still key and still number one.
BOND: You know, one theme that’s been running through the conversation we’ve been having is that you believe that the possibility is there.
BOND: And another person sitting in this seat might say, “I never believed that. I don’t believe it now, and every experience I’ve had tells me it’s not true.” Why do you believe it?
WILDER: Well, you know, we’ve had a great president at Howard University Mordecai Johnson.
BOND: Spoke at my high school graduation.
WILDER: And he was a great man. He cared so much for the cultivation and the development of black lawyers -- told Charlie Houston [Charles Hamilton Houston], “You do this. I’m behind you 100 percent.” One of the things that he spoke about, and you know he spoke forever --
BOND: Yes, he did.
WILDER: -- but beautifully.
BOND: Yes, he spoke almost for two hours at my high school graduation. Without a note -- no notes.
WILDER: Without a note! But he always spoke to the high possibility of the individual. And that was his theme. Whatever he would be speaking about, he would always come back to say, "And we must always develop the high possibility of the individual to its greatest potential." So it means you can’t stop anywhere along the way to say, "I've done it." Have you challenged yourself to the highest possibility? That’s what Herb Reid meant when he said, “I’m going to fail you.” Because “Oh yeah, you’ll be a fair lawyer, a good lawyer. But have you challenged yourself to the highest possibility of potential?" That has stayed with me all through these years.
BOND: Let me move on to leadership philosophy. What do you see is the difference between vision, philosophy, and style? Can you describe the interaction between these three things? Vision, philosophy, and style. What are the differences and similarities?
WILDER: Vision is you see it, and you might even have an ability to plan it. Philosophy, in my judgment, means of course a question of your belief. Do you believe what you say you see, do you see what you believe? And style is implementation. There’s one word, two words to describe it -- do it. In my life, I think you should do it. Don’t talk about it. Do it. Vision in the absence of implementation is nothing. Philosophy is beautiful to expound and to discuss and to have drinks over, but style in encompassing those two things means you’re doing it, getting it done. Now how do you do it? You just do it! You don’t talk about it. Now, is it going to be right? It might not be. Is it going to be proven? It might not be. Will it work? You will never know. You’ve got to try to do it. And so, the three things I think are beautiful ways to describe how you put the test to the test. You first of all have to encompass it some way, visualize it, but if you don’t believe it, it’s empty. And if it’s something you really believe and it’s something you see, then you don’t try to stylize it to the degree of how you do it -- you do it. It might not be the same way someone else might do it, you might make some mistakes, but when you get it done, then the test is did you get it done -- what you saw and what you believed? If so, that’s the style of it.
BOND: So would you describe yourself as a pragmatist mostly?
WILDER: I try to think of myself that way, but I’m most described as a maverick. But people think I’m running outside of the guidelines. I don’t see that. I see reality. Just like that old elephant who got across the bridge -- he puts one foot on it first to shake it to see if he can put the other one on it. And I think that I follow that old elephant's line.
BOND: But you know the word maverick, I’ve seen that associated with you more than I have the word pragmatist.
WILDER: I know, you’re right.
BOND: So whatever your intention is, I think the larger audience says, "Maverick -- that guy's a maverick." You ran against the crusade for voters, you ran for office, one against conventional wisdom to run for lieutenant governor and governor, and really people must say that you’re crazy. “You can’t do that.”
WILDER: No they did.
BOND: But you did it.
WILDER: Well, see the question isn’t how people see you. It’s how you see yourself. And if you see yourself as a maverick, then obviously that holds you back. But if you see yourself as doing what any person would do similarly situated, then it means you’re doing what is right. And that’s why I continue to go back to saying, "If the thing is right, the time is right to do it." Just do it! And don’t pay any attention to how you’re being described.
BOND: Now, do you have a vision that has guided your work in your life? A single vision that’s remained constant over time?
WILDER: Yes, and that’s never resting. Never believe that you’ve made success of it. Because success is something you continue to work at. It goes back to what I said about Mordecai Johnson’s exhortation. Develop to the highest possibility of your potential. At my age now, I never would have thought that I would still be tapping into that development. But age as we now know is relevant. It depends on what you’re doing with the time allocated to your space here on earth.
BOND: What you described could be called your personal vision. Do you have a vision for the city of Richmond as mayor? Do you have a vision for the state of Virginia as governor, lieutenant governor? Do you have a vision for the whole country? You ran for the U.S. Senate -- do you have different visions for the positions you’ve held, or just the life you’ve led that is different from the personal vision that you have?
WILDER: Yes. I would like to think that we will be coming into a time where the things that I have personally envisioned, as such as would be the pilot of this country. Taken for granted in some instances but so much so that it would be expected that people should be in these positions that you and I have occupied, the goals that we are seeking. After all, all we’re talking about is the development of people. And people having a fair opportunity in an equal setting. At a point of looking out for the overall good of mankind, the overall good of Americans, the overall good of people around the globe in terms of making certain that we maximize that possibility that Jefferson described in terms of the pursuit of happiness and the enjoyment of life.
BOND: Let me ask you a question about making leaders. Some people think there are three separate ways that leaders are made. Number one, great people cause great events. Number two, movements make leaders. And number three, the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the time. Which of these do you think fits you, if any?
WILDER: I think the last two, probably would — confluence of events and the second one was —
BOND: Movements make leaders.
WILDER: Movements obviously make — obviously, Martin Luther King fit all three of the categories, but they had never been tapped other than for the confluence of events. Leaders are all around us. The question is how they are tapped, but when so tapped, who seizes that opportunity? And in many instances it’s — it’s a question of that individual commitment. You see it in the same families. You see it in the same settings. You see people who have been exposed to the same things but that are affected in different ways. So the real test is, how does that individual become affected by what you described as envisionment and philosophy, and then the implementation with style. Those are the three things that are fixed to what that individual sees as the need to change what is. Leadership means change.
BOND: And would you guess that if you had people in the same family — brothers, let’s say — and one finds the confluence of these things, all these things coming together, then that one will exercise some leadership ability. And the other doesn’t see that, then he won’t?
WILDER: Might not. I go back to my mother again, and she told me once, she said, “You need to determine for yourself what you think is right. Even though it might not be what I think is right. But once you determine that, don’t stop." It’s almost like stealing it from Aristotle. Know thy right — or Socrates rather. Know thy right, then proceed. But first of all, know thy right. That’s why I think it’s silly! You’ve experienced the same thing. Relatives don’t necessarily see things the same way. But that’s life! That’s what great about mankind. And we are born differently in terms of perception and experiences. We’re all the same in terms of makeup, but how we go about following that is different. And that’s what makes life so interesting.
BOND: Do you see your legitimacy as a leader grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or in your ability to articulate the agenda of a movement?
WILDER: I think it’s more of the latter. But I think it’s more — once having determined that, not being concerned with the rightness or wrongness of it. I, for instance, never knew "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" was the state song even though we all had to learn it. And that was the first speech I made on the Senate floor. Oh my god, man I can't — through perfect hell. My kids, they were ostracized, and people were saying, "That’s his daughter, that’s his son." They didn’t know why, I didn’t know why. And yet so many people never understood why I was doing it. They thought I was objecting to the whole “darkie’s heart am long’d to go.” I wasn’t concerned with that, people call you all sorts of names. The second stanza of this song is well known, is saying even the slave and death continue to be a slave. "I can’t wait to get back to Ol Massa and Missus, and we weren’t going to be separated any more," which means all his life in slavery and in debt in slavery. So I got letters from all over the world — it emboldened me. They stopped singing the song, they haven’t sung it since. They've never adopted a new song. They finally repealed it, I think, in 1997, but this was done in 1970. Some thirty-eight years ago! It takes time.
BOND: It does. Do you have a general philosophy that guides you through life, and if so, how did it sustain you? Through challenges, the kickbacks that you got from the "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" or from moments of alienations, how does that philosophy guide you?
WILDER: Well, something that I touched on earlier, I said if you know what’s right, you do it. You don’t concern yourself with criticism. The one thing that stayed with me is I say that I don’t succumb to flattery because if I did, then criticism would crush me. And consequently, I don’t really care how many great things are said about me — people writing or saying things about me. It doesn’t sway me, it doesn't change me — I'm the same person. It’s just like water on a duck’s back. And that’s the same with criticism. When that comes, if I consider it undue, it doesn’t affect me one bit.
BOND: Let me ask you about different concepts of political leadership. You're the mayor, but you’re also a professor at VCU and you’re also helping to build this museum. Now, some people could argue these are three different things that require some different kinds of leadership. Do you agree or — ?
WILDER: Yeah. I think, yeah, they do. The slavery museum is amazing when you consider the — you've got to go begging for your money. You listen to Skip Gates the other night talking about how Du Bois had to literally give up on the Encyclopedia Africana, you finally now — Skip [Gates] is doing his encyclopedia, after having finally gotten some grants. I think when you consider the problems that people have had with museum building all over the country, it’s very difficult. These are tough times economically. At VCU, I've found, as you have found, I know, such an enriching opportunity to stay relevant, and to — your students make you stay younger. It keeps your mind more active, more facile. I like to engage in questioning, and I like for them — and they do hold me to task. In government, it’s different because you are discharging the responsibilities of a constituency, as you know, and you — you do the best you can to represent the people. When you’re teaching, you’re teaching them to demand more from government, you teach them to criticize government, you’re teaching them to be a part of government. And I think one of the mistakes we make is believing that people to be involved in politics have to be elected. And as you know, some of the most powerful positions in this country, people never run for. They don’t have to. But they’re involved in politics, and I think that’s a disconnect that hasn't come about. I try to separate them to a degree, but I’m mindful of the differences of all three.
BOND: Do these three different jobs you have, or you've taken on — teacher, mayor, museum developer — do they require a different kind of leadership? Does one require more consensual kind of leadership? Does one require — I don’t want to use the term autocratic, because it's weighted, but you know, in your classroom, you’re in charge. You're absolutely in charge in a way you're not as mayor. You're, other people are —
WILDER: That's right.
BOND: So, how do these require some different leadership?
WILDER: They do. I think being in the classroom requires you to do more research. You need to be certain. I think you have a higher responsibility to choose what you say very carefully because you are instructing. And there are some people in the classroom who will take what you say to be fact, to be truth, because they will have that degree of respect for your research and your involvement academically. You can abuse that. You can abuse it so easily by not being studious in your research and making certain that what you are saying is not just some idle thought but based on something. Being in the position of an elected official, on the other hand, requires you to go against the grain if necessary, to pay the price for that. But by the same token to be the representative. And when I say go against the grain — going against the grain of popularity. But always, you got to understand that you are not there for yourself. You should never have considered that. It is not a matter of what you gain from the position or whether it’s wealth or recognition, or any other thing, it’s what your job requires in terms of making certain that government runs properly. As far a museum is concerned, that’s another form of education. But it’s not as direct as classroom, it’s more exposing something that has been left pretty much unspoken of to the extent that it should be. Slavery and the role it’s played in this country has never really been fully shown to the American public, so much so that people on both sides of the fence — when I say the fence, [I mean] racial — I say, "Why, that’s something to get away from." You can’t get away from what you don’t know! Learn! And then be informed. And then you’re in the position to say, "Yes, well, this is what we should do to show how America has come from that and will confront the problem that we have today."
BOND: That's a natural transition to the next series of questions. How does race consciousness affect your work? Do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of race or society or both? Is there always a distinction? Is there anything — such thing a race-transcending leader?
WILDER: Well, people describe things as they will. I always try to look at what the issues are. If we list — if we are talking about healthcare, or we are talking about education, the criminal justice system, the question is how has race affected any group any more disproportionately than it should have. You've seen it in education when we were talking about Brown v. Board. So when you're talking about remedies, you're not talking about remedies for African Americans, you're talking about everyone having that equality of education. When you're talking about the justice system you're talking about one bets for all people. You're talking about affordable housing, you want to make certain that all people have it. Automatically, you'd be lifting up those disparaged, those who have been left out of the equation. The more important thing is to make certain that having a seat at the table is not just empty. That you're not there because of your color, nor should you be there because of your color. And that's one of the things that I think you as an elected official have experienced as much as I have. Sometimes people expect that you would be going more heavily on one side than the other, and even when you are being as fair and as open-minded and as balanced as you can, those accusations will come. The real thing is, are you doing the right thing? Are you making certain that no one is disparaged by your political decisions? Because equality in government is so essential to good government that you can't but leave it out.
BOND: You know, while we're sitting here, democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is preparing to make a speech on race triggered, I think, by charges against his supporters and allegations against him that he's come to where he is only because of his race. A couple of speculative questions without even knowing what he's going to say, because neither of us knows that, do you think this is a wise choice for him to try to lay out his thoughts about race right now? Or does it remind people that he is a black candidate? You know, when he started, people used to say, "Is he black enough?" And now some people say he's too black. So it may be a no win proposition.
WILDER: It's a very, very tricky situation. As it were "sticky wicket". It's going to be interesting to see how he does it. First of all, how do you start it out? I know you were at this point now because I am, I don't get up in the morning to look at my hands, look at my face to say, "I'm a black person." I'm a human being! I don't — race is so transcendent with me in terms of my everyday activity that my job is to hope that others likewise see in that way. Now, how does he cross that chasm? To be critical of those who inject ways that he should be lucky, that'd be a [inaudible] and I'd never heard anything like that in my life, and by the same token, to throw his minister under the bus because of some disparaging remarks he's made. Or do you point to this lack of equal treatment in terms of John McCain supporters — with John Hagee and the others who [are] on the wild side, relative to certain groups — or do you repeat what people think you are, in terms, not being the racial candidate and how do you say it? It's a very, very tough sale for him. I'm going to be looking at it as you are to see what it is.
BOND: Do you have any idea of what you might say if you were in the same position?
WILDER: The real question is would I be saying anything —
WILDER: — if I were in that same position, and I don't know if I would. I had never done that. When I ran for office I said I'm not going to have use race as a badge nor as a barrier. And as you know, I had any numbers of friends who said they would have come in and campaign for me and I said, “Fine, I don't mind that. But if you do, it's not going to be to the extent of saying, ‘You're voting people, so we're going to make history.'" History doesn't pay the bills. Making history doesn't make your taxes lighter, doesn't make the, your defense stronger. So, it — I would weigh it very carefully. Today, if it were me, I don't know if I'd be making that speech today.
BOND: Not at all?
WILDER: I might not.
BOND: You know, I sort of have the same feeling, but of course, I'm not him, and —
WILDER: Oh, and I'm not either.
BOND: So I just don't know. Coming back to you, do you have a different leadership style when you deal with groups that are all black, mixed race, or all white? Are you different on these occasions?
WILDER: No, and I've been criticized on occasions when I've said that black issues are not really black issues. They are issues where people have been disproportionately affected because they may be black. Education, healthcare, affordable housing, crime, etc., etc. I say the same thing to a Chamber of Congress meeting that I would to a Baptist Church that I belong, the same thing I would say to an NAACP gathering. I don't ever want to be divided in my own thinking. I don't ever — because that would detract from me as a person. I don't want to think of myself as a “Today I'm this person, tomorrow I'm that person.” And you and I have been around long enough to know that if you say something one place one way, it's going to come out some other place when you're saying it a different way. And so far, I haven't been caught in that trap, and I don't think the trap can be baited for me because as I've told you, when I get up in the morning, I told you who I see. I see a human being who wants to treat other human beings the same way I want them to treat me.
BOND: In a book called Challenging the Civil Rights Establishment, the authors quote William Allen writing about a danger in continually thinking in terms of race or gender. He says, "Until we learn to use again the language of American freedom in an appropriate way that embraces all of us, we're going to continue to harm this country." So is there a danger of divisiveness, when we focus on the very concept of black leadership? No one would deny, or I don't think they would, you are a black leader.
BOND: Is that a healthy thing to call you that, to describe you in that way?
WILDER: I have some questions about it. Because I feel that if a person — leadership as we've described it before, but if I am a black leader, then that means I'm not a leader. And that —
BOND: You're a qualified leader.
WILDER: That's exactly it. That is the detraction. So Allen might have a point to the extent of pointing out, and I think we've discussed it here, today, in the absence of freedom, you want equality. You want freedom. You want rights. No more nor any less than anyone else. If that's there, then you're making the cut. Some have complained, and I do too, that it's taken a long time, far too long. And yet we are a young country still in this experiment with democracy. That's why we got to continually challenge the precepts, and the making of America, the dream that so many people wanted it to be, because if it's ever fulfilled, and we're working towards it — and it still is! There is no place like this place in the world.
BOND: Do black leaders, using the term advisedly, have an obligation to help other African Americans? Or is there a point of when that obligation ends and a leader can pursue his own ideas or ambitions?
WILDER: The question is who do you lead? If you are visualizing it as you pointed out, if it's the philosophy that you have, then the implementation means that yes, you have a responsibility to — to whom much is given, and much is expected, as you know. You've got great talents, you don't go into a crowd and say, “I've done all my job.” You've served in an elected office, you teach on a regular basis, you write, you serve in other positions that God knows that if you were serving on these rich corporate boards, making tons of money, but you've giving up your time and your effort because it's in you. That's a drive that was put into you by your parents, by your community. No one had to tell you, say, "Julian — " And that's why you don't stop! You know you can't stop! Because that spirit force would never let you stop.
BOND: What do you see as your greatest contribution as an African American leader?
WILDER: Again, to the extent that I've been given opportunity, I've not abused it. To the extent that I've had chances to occupy positions, I've shown that it's possible that people to serve in these positions and be fair, be judgmental to the extent of exercising the fairness that some people thought might not have been the case. But as you likewise point out, to provide opportunities for others to follow, that's why I was so happy to be brought up to Massachusetts last inaugural for Deval Patrick to say, "Thank God, at last we got another governor!" Show them the possibility. Likewise even with the calamity in New York with Eliot Spitzer, that the state could move on. A big state, with the expectancy that they see in David Paterson. It means a lot to me, more than I could adequately describe here.
BOND: Yes, I’m sure it does. In his book Race Matters, Cornel West writes, “The crisis of leadership is a symptom of black distance from a vibrant foundation of resistance. From a vital community bonded by ethical ideals and from a credible sense of political struggle." Now, do you see a crisis of leadership in black communities today, and if you do, what makes that happen, what contributes to it?
WILDER: I wish I knew the answer to that, and I have to confess to you that I do see — I wouldn’t, I don’t want to call it a crisis. It could very easily be, that when you and I were coming up, and I’m a little older than you are, but when you and I were coming up, there were things that were expected, that we had little choice in terms of the engagement. But we also knew that we had to set examples by being prepared. We’re not having that now. You know even in your class, you have students coming to you. But look at the opportunities that young people around me, the country, could say, “Dr. Bond, I want to talk to you about such and such thing. Help me, and tell me.” You might tell them, they'll say, "Thanks a lot," and they’ll go out and do whatever they’re going to do anyway. I don’t think a lot of our younger people — and some of them understand that there are no longer rewards for this. That it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s not a popularity contest. But it’s a contribution to society as a whole, and to the extent that it benefits a racial element of that society is one thing, but the totality of society is what you’re talking about improving. And you make that commitment, you do it, and you try to inspire others so to do. That’s the way you go back to the community — to the barbershop, to the shoe shine parlor. That’s why you got to go back to your churches, and see what they did for us. Look how much of that is missing today. That’s the undergirding of those success stories that many of us are able to tell.
BOND: Yeah. But in the absence of that kind of forum — you mentioned the demise of the barbershop.
BOND: In the absence of that kind of community nurturing system, what can replace it?
WILDER: I don’t know. I had dinner with a lady last night — very highly respected person [from] one of the Fortune 500 Companies. And I was saying to her, “I would like very much for you to engage people similarly situated as you are to understand that there is a chasm. That we need to give the rebirth to our fraternities and our sororities. We need to bring back the opportunities they had for making certain that we were striving as a group, as a people, to make a contribution." And that’s not there. We got to do it at local levels. I know with your broad responsibility with the NAACP, you see it exactly what I’m talking about, how it varies from community to community. And now on the other hand, you see the need for each locality to divine its own purpose, to divine its own goals, as long as it’s positively acclimated. And to make certain that we don’t give up. Don’t stop, fight to the end to make certain that we improve the lot.
BOND: What kind of leaders does contemporary society demand? Different from than the past? And how will these future problems demand different leadership styles?
WILDER: Well, they are very demanding times, because a lot of people don’t want to get into the fray. They know that they’ll — their personal lives will be examined beyond scope and imagination. A lot of people believe that "As long as I can look up for me and my family and my children," they want to do it. I think it demands a different type of leadership in terms of people who maybe not have gone through the same rigors, but would have to reconnect and understand what some of those things have been. As you know, there are many people who are profiting in this country as a result of the sacrifices of so many people. But they don’t recognize it. And they don’t know it. That’s why they’ve got to be re-inculcated, as you would put it, with a spirit of contribution.
BOND: Now, you like to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson —
BOND: — who wrote, “Events are in the saddle, and they ride mankind.”
WILDER: I believe that.
BOND: Yeah, you believe that today?
WILDER: I really do. I believe that today. And I believe that you don’t predict what those events are going to be. They — it gets back to what you were saying about what makes that leader. And events made Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks, any of those kinds of things. So yes, I do believe that events are in the saddle and they ride mankind. But to the extent that they are in the saddle, you've got to be able to jump on that saddle.
BOND: On your desk you got a sign that says, “I don’t get mad. I just get even.” But in your law office, you've got a poem by Langston Hughes, “Hold fast to dreams for dreams die. Life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” Are those statements a part of your philosophy of leadership?
WILDER: Yeah. Particularly the —
BOND: How did they come together?
WILDER: Well first of all, with Hughes, it goes back to what your questions were here earlier. Vision. And how does that vision materialize? Vision is almost a dream. But you hold fast to them, that gets back again to you're really believing in them. And then the implementation of them comes back to, look in politics, you don’t say, “Well, you know, they did this to me, blah-blah-blah." Don't argue about that. You do what you need to do to get the upper hand. Politics is a give-and-take thing. It’s not a hateful thing. It’s a matter of the art of the possible. And how is that done? It’s done on an everyday basis. Republicans and Democrats eat lunch and go to dinner in the evening after they fought each other half the day. It’s not a matter of saying, "Well, we hate each other." It’s a matter of the art of that possibility, to hold fast to those dreams and to accomplish.
BOND: In a 2004 interview, you said, “The politics of race is gone.” Yet you’ve also been quoted to say, “Racism is not going to leave.” How can both of these things be true?
WILDER: Well, racism has been around since man has been around. And the question isn’t whether that’s here, the question is what do you do in terms of pitting one race against the other as far as politics is concerned? To my view and to my way of thinking, that should be gone because people in politics shouldn’t be the best of whatever each race can produce but what can be produced to eliminate the need for racism to exist. Racism can be minimized. Will it ever be obliterated? I doubt it. Like hatred, will that be obliterated? I doubt it. Love, I hope, never will be either. But I think it’s really a question of making certain that the people we choose, whether it's a George Wallace on the one hand, or a Carl Stokes on the other. The question is that we are not voting for those persons because of race but because of contributions.
BOND: Well, Doug Wilder. Thank you for doing this.
WILDER: Julian Bond! Thank you very much. Always good to be with you.
BOND: Oh, our pleasure. Thank you.
WILDER: Thank you.