Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Foundational Leadership Experiences

BOND: But even as a student, both in high school and then at the University in undergraduate school, you are seeking and receiving leadership positions. Now, can you remember motivation here? Is race a part of it or is it simply the desire to be in a position to make some change?

WILKINS: I liked politics. It was – part of it was just I did not think – I thought you should not just sit around and do nothing, that you should do something. And I just always wanted to make things better. And at the University of Michigan the student legislature, before we were slapped down the second time, was really a vital part in the University campus, and I found it very attractive. And so, I ran very early. All my black friends thought I was quite weird, but –

BOND: It is hard for my students to understand, but there was a time when there were much more vigorous student politics on the college campus than there appear to be today.

WILKINS: Even in the '50s.

BOND: Yes. Political parties –

WILKINS: They call this the silent generation. But yeah.

BOND: So what was your black friends' reaction? I cut you off there.

WILKINS: Well, we lived a segregated life really. You know, you talked to white people in the classroom and that's about all. And they said, "Oh, man, Roger is running for student government. That is a weird thing to do. But then, Roger is weird anyway." Because this was still – I was now making a transition from this virtual white person, who I had become in high school, back into a black person and that weirdness was apparent. And so, you know, my black friends loved me and they teased me for it. But they, you know, they thought I was kind of weird to do that.

BOND: And obviously, they supported you, I'm guessing –

WILKINS: Oh, yes.

BOND: – or you might not have won.

WILKINS: When I ran for president of the class in my junior year, for the president of senior class, I mean, they were just proud. I mean, they just thought this was wonderful.

BOND: Then you go to law school. And it is the year after you get to law school that Brown is decided.

WILKINS: I think it was first decided my freshman year.

BOND: Okay. And what is law school like? I imagine the black percentage is even smaller than in the undergraduate college.

WILKINS: I think there were only three or four – three black people in my class, I think.

BOND: Now, did you get from the faculty members, all of whom were white, that you are expected to use this tool to become a leadership figure?

WILKINS: Yeah. Because I was not a good student in undergraduate school. And I didn't expect to go to graduate school. I think I expected to become a journalist. But there was a girl who was still there at Michigan. Well, I went to – the Korean War was still on when I finished college. And nobody knew when it was going to be over. The stalemate was on. And I was either going to get drafted or I was going to do something else. Well, I was a hot rodder, still am. And so I wanted to fly airplanes. And it was really hard to get into the Air Force as a pilot. But I went – I volunteered, I went down to Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois and there were a hundred guys, all trying to get into the Air Force and fly. And the first day, they gave us a physical exam. At the end of that fifty guys were gone. The second day, they gave us a mental exam. At the end of that another forty-four guys were gone. That means ninety-four percent of this group is washed out. The next day was just easy Link trainers – do you have coordination and stuff like that. Well, as kind of a half-athlete, that was easy for me, except that they could only take five at a time. My name was last on the list, by alphabet. And so the first guys had to go. And by now we're bonded, you know, I mean, we're the survivors. And so, I just teased them to death because I had gotten an extra hour's sleep. They got there at 6:30 and they got through. I got there, I was supposed to be there at 7:30 and I got there at twenty-eight after seven. Sergeant in charge says, "What do you want?" And I said, "I am here for my – " The guys had finished and I met them on the way. And he said, "You're late." I said, "I'm not late. It's 7:28." There is a big clock on the wall. He said, "You are, too, late. I am not doing it." And I said, "Well, when can I do it again?" Thinking maybe 9:30. He said, "Next Wednesday." This is Saturday. I said, "What?" I said, "I am not late. It is now [7:29]." "You're late," he says. And so we argued some more. And I can see another guy is there, he's really uncomfortable with this – a white guy, corporal or something. And then by that time it is 7:31, and we're still arguing. He looks at the clock. He says, "You're late, see." He said, "Leave. I am not doing this for you." And so I leave and I hear the other guy saying something to him. And the guy says – and I am now thinking, "Will I stay on this base by myself until – " The guy says, "I am not going to run this thing just for a nigger."

That was it. The television cameras are around, I will not say what I said you could do to your Air Force. But I left and then I went – since this girl was still back there, I went back to Ann Arbor and said, "Well, can I be a – go to graduate school or law school?" And I took the test and they admitted me both into graduate school and law school and I went to law school. I was angry. I mean, that anger – but I had not intended to go to law school. I hadn't gotten the grades for law school. I did very well on the LSAT. And at some point, I was not figuring out things very well, and I went to my contracts teacher and asked him. Well, he explained what was going on in class that day. And then I, just for reassurance, I said, "Well, Professor Harvey – " You know, he was the admissions officer. "I think probably I have one of the lowest GPA's in the class," hoping he would say, "Oh, no." He said, "Yes, Mr. Wilkins, that is true." Well, now I got indignant. I said, "Well, what did you let me in here for?" And he said to me, "Because the University of Michigan has – we think, here at the law school, we have a responsibility to educate black leaders because the black race needs leaders. And so, we were able to check with people in the undergraduate school and they told us if you hadn't done all these other things you could have been a superb student. So we let you in. But you have to do the work. If you don't do the work, we'll flunk you out." But that was explicit. The University of Michigan feels a responsibility to educate black leaders.

BOND: And you were selected, by virtue of your applying, as a potential leadership figure.


BOND: And this law school training would certify you or give you the equipment, the tools you need to be this leadership figure.