Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Race Consciousness

BOND: Roger Wilkins, welcome. Thank you very much for agreeing to do this.

WILKINS: My pleasure.

BOND: I want to try to run through your life, if we can.

WILKINS: Do it fast, run as fast as you can.

BOND: We don't have sufficient time to focus as well as I think our eventual viewers would like. But we're interested in the development of leadership and black leadership, specifically. And of course, that leads to questions about consciousness of race. You write in your autobiography that you're conscious of race and conscious of segregation, as other black children are at an early age. What are your memories of Kansas City and race and childhood?

WILKINS: My first memory is that we lived in a very small black enclave in Kansas City called Roundtop. And you walked two blocks in either direction and you were in a white neighborhood. And I said to my grandmother, who lived with us, "Gram, why do all the people, on this side of 22nd Street, say, all smile and say, 'Hello Roger,' and then we cross the street and everybody looks mean." I didn't see it in terms of color but I saw it in terms of warmth and friendship. There is a family store that my grandmother took me shopping. And this is my first civil rights activity. I was maybe two, I suppose. And we are on the top floor of a department store in downtown Kansas City, and I told her I had to go bathroom. She asked the woman where the ladies' room was – sales clerk – and she said, "There is none on this floor. The one for colored is in the basement." And I was doing a little dance that little kids do when they need to go. And my grandmother said, "Can't you see this little boy cannot wait until he gets downstairs?" And she said, "Go downstairs. That's for colored." And my grandmother said, "All right, Roger, just let's unbutton your fly here and we will do it right here." Whereupon I integrated the ladies' room on the top of that store. That's a story they told all along.

But my first memory was a one-room segregated school house, my first school. And immediately after we started, you know, six or seven months they closed it. And I was still in kindergarten and I was bussed across town – way across town – to Crispus Attucks School, black school. And it is interesting, nobody said, "Oh, those are the poor black children. They have to bus them. They are so small and cute. It will hurt their psyches." Nor did people say it would hurt our psyches when people called us "monkey," "nigger," and stuff like that. But then that made the idea of race acute, and from that time on, I had no questions about it.

BOND: Now you write about your father's funeral, was buried at a black cemetery. Does that summon up any consciousness, that there's this separation even after death?

WILKINS: Well, it has stuck with me. I loved my father very much, and my memory of him is made more acute by the fact that most people – he died so young, most people didn't know him. And so, so many people assume that [my uncle] Roy Wilkins was my father. And it has pressed a consciousness of my father into me, but he cared about me very much. He tried to help me read and helped me to love writing. And some of my happiest childhood moments are times when he and I were home alone together. So, when he died, even though I couldn't fully comprehend the finality of death, it was a moment of great trauma for me. And I remember, the idea that he was not good enough, even dead, to be buried with white people, enraged me, even in my sadness. And it's been an issue for me all the rest of my life. I constantly refer to it. I've talked about it, I've written about it. I just, you know, when a man dies, a very talented man dies at thirty-five, virtually everything is unfair. And for his life to have been unfair and for the end of it – that assault on his dignity still makes me angry. And this is now sixty-one years later.