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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
BOND: Skipping ahead, you go to the University of Michigan and you are assigned two black roommates – which you hope Michigan wouldn't do today – and what's that like? You are in this great big school, 20,000 students, 250 of them black.
WILKINS: Well, it turned out that those two guys and I, we just didn't like each other. So that didn't work. But I guess we accepted the – we noticed it, we accepted the segregation. But very quickly the blacks, the black students at the University of Michigan had created a life for themselves.
WILKINS: Well, fraternities, and you just knew everybody. And when a fraternity had a dance it wasn't just the Kappas who came to the dance. Everybody on campus came to the dance. It was the black dance. Most of the time I was there none of the other Greek letter organizations had houses, so you always had your function in a University place and everybody came. It was always open. I mean it was a scandal once – I don't remember who did it, I just don't remember – one of the Greek letter organizations decided it was going to have a closed affair. That was the talk of the community. Boy, and we talked about those guys really badly. But it became quite clear, very early, that the University of Michigan, even though it was different from the other – from the Southern places – but when I got there in 1949, there had never been a black basketball player in Michigan. There had never been a black baseball player. And the first black baseball player was a member of my class – a guy named Frank Hall from Muskegon. The first black basketball – there was only one black basketball player in all of the Big Ten. Not one starter – one. And it was so extraordinary that I remember his name – Bill Garrett, from Indiana. He played forward and he was pigeon-toed and we always – when Indiana came, all the blacks would go and would hoot for Michigan, for Garrett to score thirty-five points, and Michigan to win by one. And the first black basketball player didn't come to Michigan until a kid named Don Eaddy from Grand Rapids came in my junior year. So we knew. There were no black professors, there were no black administrators. When I was – I loved the University of Michigan, but this is what I say about affirmative action. It is so much better a university now then it was when I went there. I never had a black professor, or a woman professor either for that matter. I never was assigned a book, a play, an essay, or a poem written by a black person or that suggested that a black person had ever done anything useful in the whole of recorded history. Nothing. As a matter of fact, the only thing that I read about blacks doing anything was in Constitutional Law when I was in law school when we were assigned Brown v. Board of Education. So, we understood that that was a white place and that the powers that be were saying to us, "This is our university. We have done you a favor to let you in here." And of course, I opposed that and fought against it. And they said, "Well, look at you." And this is always the answer, you know. And they're playing on this kind of thing, that separation that I had developed in high school. Well, by the time I was a junior in college I wasn't buying this stuff anymore. But it was their place, and we just created our own space within that place.
BOND: Now, you described, if I am not mistaken, a world in which there is this separation, some of it self imposed, in the creation of an all-black world but also a world in which whites are the civil rights advocates. Is that right?
WILKINS: No, there were not.
BOND: And blacks less likely so?
WILKINS: There were some. It is true the University's – the student legislature at the University of Michigan pressed to have the fraternities and sororities either get rid of their segregation clauses in their charters and integrate, or be tossed off of campus. And these are the white student activists. And there were also some white students who noticed that blacks couldn't have their hair cut at the Michigan Union. They tried to change that. And the first group on the student government that tried that thing about desegregating the fraternities and sororities was defeated by the administration. I was in the second group. I was, by that time, a member of the student government and the leader of the human rights committee and I proposed it, or my committee did, and it went on through all of the university processes until the regents again smacked us down. And I must say, as an educator, I still hold to the view that I formed in those years that fraternities and sororities are really anti-intellectual and against – they just cut against everything that the university stands for. We are trying to broaden kids, and we are trying to bring them in contact with ideas and people that they would never encounter but for this institution. And what do you have? Admission, at least in those days, kids would be rushing to fraternities and sororities before they had ever seen the inside of a classroom. And what do you have? You have white kids from East Grand Rapids, for example, the rich suburb of Grand Rapids, all went to school in this homogeneous mass, and then they come down to the university, and they seek a fraternity and sorority made up of people just like them. And that's how they spend their years. And they go back to Grand Rapids to take over leadership roles. And they are just as narrow socially as they were when they went to the University. I hate that. I hated it when I was a student and not just for racial reasons.