Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Following Your Moral Compass

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 They finally repealed it, I think, in 1997, but this was done in 1970.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.