Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Civil Rights in the North

WILKINS: Now in that time something really important happened to me because my draft board was nutty. I had a year in which I had to wait to determine whether I was going to get drafted – this was right after law school – or not. So, I worked for the Cuyahoga County Welfare Department in Cleveland, Ohio. And I had my first taste of government dealing with poor black people. And I had my first taste of dealing intimately on a long continuum with the lives of poor black people. And I think that was one of the critical junctures in my life. Because I knew welfare was – I mean, you didn't have to do it very long to know welfare was just terrible, debilitating. And so, I made it my job from the time I was there to put three people to work. I mean, just – and the resistance to hiring these poor people. And of course I picked the people who were most job-ready. And I got one woman a job. And the rest of my efforts on these other two – the rest was just maintenance, you know, just making sure the checks got out and stuff. But I just, I learned volumes about black poverty in big urban centers.

And so, that began for me a very strong effort to be involved in civil rights in the North. It was really glamorous, what you guys were doing in the South, but I understood that the people in the North had all the rights on paper that you guys were fighting for and they were still the last hired. Their poverty rates were awful. Their schools were awful. They were beset by crime and official indifference. And when officialdom did deal with them, they dealt with them in a calloused, non-caring way. So, I, even at one point, I wanted to quit. Before I quit my law firm and went to work for the government, I put it to my law firm: I was going to quit my law firm and I was going to go open up a practice in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, where I lived in Brooklyn at the time. Because I really wanted to be able to do something. And these guys dissuaded me and said, "We will make it possible for you to do some of that practice there." So I didn't do that then. But – and I remember, I wrote about it at the time, even though I wasn't a writer, I was able to place some things. And it carried through. When I took over the community relations service later in the 60's, in 1966, up until that time it had really been staffed by white Southerners and the idea was, something breaks out in a little town and all of a sudden, you send these experts from Washington, put them on a plane and send them to McComb, Mississippi, to stop the bombing. A, I thought that they were stupid because I didn't think that was ever going to work. And B, I thought that the North really needed attention and nobody was paying attention. So I shifted the whole focus of the agency and you know, this is eight years after I worked in Cleveland, but by now, I've really – I know a lot more. But I was starting to try that even before the riots in the summers broke out. So I was always much more focused on trying to affect systems and power arrangements in the North in order to alleviate the problems of the poor.