Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Reflections on Brown

BOND: Skip ahead. Brown is decided. You're in law school. This is, among things, a great legal victory. What was your – do you remember your initial reaction when you heard about it on the radio?

WILKINS: I didn't hear about it. I was walking through the hall and a white student came up to me who had never talked to me. I think it was Dick [Richard] Riordan, who is now the mayor of Los Angeles. I really do believe it, I can kind of see a face. And he says, "Congratulations." I said, "For what?" And he said, "The Supreme Court decision in Brown." At first it's annoyance. Why is he congratulating me, you know? But then it just kind of dawns on me, "Good Lord, this is gigantic, this is huge."

BOND: So you knew the case was pending? You knew it had been argued, you knew – ?

WILKINS: Oh, sure.

BOND: Now did you know because your uncle was Roy Wilkins and because you knew Thurgood Marshall, or did you know because everybody black knew? Or most black people knew?

WILKINS: Well, we knew in my house, you know. I mean, my mother and my stepfather talked about it. But I had a political science course – Poli-Sci 90 – which was essentially a current events course, where they got us in the habit of reading The New York Times. So from the time when I was junior in high, I mean in college, I've read the New York Times every day. So, sure, I knew.

BOND: So Riordan tells you and what's your reaction?

WILKINS: Oh, I was ecstatic. And I found my buddy Larry Sperling, who is still my buddy. His son was in the White House – the Clinton White House – Gene Sperling. I found my buddy Larry, and we found a couple of other buddies with whom we always drank coffee, and we went off to a coffee house and we sat there and we talked about this new country we were going to have.

BOND: What did you mean by new country? What was your anticipation on hearing this good news? What was the outcome going to be beyond the immediate cases?

WILKINS: I thought we were going to have a country of laws. And I thought that – look, Plessy against Ferguson was such an assault of the dignity of black people. It said that the Constitution of the United States says that all men really aren't created equal, that you are inferior. Well, now Plessy was gone. And I thought the law was a great teacher. And I thought the American people would fall into line behind this. And I thought, at the time, that prejudice was an individual thing. I didn't – I don't think I was familiar with the concept "racism." And so I thought it was a one-by-one process, you teach people and they would see the light because after all, we do believe that all men are created equal and now that this veil has been lifted from their eyes, they will – that's what I thought.

BOND: And did you recall thinking, gee, maybe five years, ten years this will all be over – or less time, perhaps?

WILKINS: I thought maybe ten. I don't know, I mean, if I had an idea. I'm not sure I did. I knew that they had to go back and reargue. And so – and I wondered what would happen in the South. But I thought that this meant massive change. Like in baseball, you know – Jackie came, and then –

BOND: And then the gates are open.

WILKINS: Yeah, right. That's what I thought.

BOND: Well, then a year later in Brown II, they say "all deliberate speed," which means any conceivable delay. But when you heard that, do you recall thinking, "Gee, maybe this will not happen as quickly as I thought it would?" Or had the year between sobered you?

WILKINS: Well, the year between there was a lot of dilly-dallying, and the South was beginning to resist. So, at that point, I realized that more effort would be needed. And I called Thurgood and I asked him could I come work for him that summer? My reaction was, "Well, work needs to be done and I'll volunteer to do the work."

BOND: And did you do the work?


BOND: And what was the work?

WILKINS: Well, that was sobering, because the work was to research the teacher tenure laws in all of the eleven segregating Southern states because Thurgood and his staff correctly anticipated that when the desegregation orders came down, the first thing they'd do was start to hire other – to fire black administrators and teachers. So I researched all those teacher tenure laws and wrote a memo on each one of them trying to provide guidance for the lawsuits that were sure to come. But then, at this point, you know, having done that and thought about it and talked to lawyers in the office, I knew we were in for a long haul.

BOND: So, that summer experience, working there with the people most immediately concerned, made you know this was not going to be a slam dunk?

WILKINS: Well, yeah, and there was another thing. I expected somehow, something like, I suppose, the exuberance of a successful athletic team, that you go in, and say, "Okay, we are going to get the bad guys today. Okay, let's go. Let's do it," you know. And here were just day-to-day lawyers slogging it out, and it's going to be a long time. Oh, that was a big dose of reality. And so, at that point my timeline became much longer.

BOND: Now, Thurgood Marshall, is he – I'm sure he shares the sentiment, this is going to be a long, long, long time. But do you get any impression from him about how long he thought it might take?

WILKINS: No. Years later, I read in Simple Justice that he thought that desegregation would occur in five years. And that by '63 – the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation – that we would have an integrated society. And Simple Justice was not written until the '70s, and I think I did not read it until 1980. And from that vantage point, that looked hopelessly, hopelessly naive. But it's funny, we didn't – in those days, most of the white people we knew were really terrific people. Because what white people would you know? You didn't know white people who were racists, right? So you knew white people who were decent, had generous spirits, believed in an America that could be shared by everybody. And so we believed that if the government – if you learned the lesson, that pretty soon, you know, the country would be full of more people like that. And so we overestimated white people because we only knew a small – and then we thought there were evil people, like [Theodore G.] Bilbo and those Southern people.

BOND: [Herman] Talmadge.

WILKINS: But they were really kind of walled off. We did not know that racism was so at the core of the American culture and a big part of the identity that so many white people in the country needed.