Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Early Leadership: Speaking Out, Being Heard

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.