Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

The Role of the Church

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!

BOND: Really?

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?