Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Rejection of Law

BOND: But immediately you take a little detour. You go to work for Delson & Gordon. And you're doing international law. And you describe yourself in this as an ersatz white man. What's that?

WILKINS: I don't know. I wore suits and ties. I even bought a hat, once. Just one in my whole lifetime. And you know, I had a briefcase and I just was a fellow with a briefcase and a suit and just like the white boys, except that I had brown skin. But I still did stuff. Even then I worked on problems of emerging countries. We represented Ghana. We did some work for some of the emerging politicians in Nigeria. We did some work for India, Burma, and a lot of work for Indonesia. So it was new countries, it was the brown and the black countries that were emerging on the world stage at the time.

BOND: And did you feel any – conflict may not be the right word, but – tension between this concern you had for people overseas and what was not happening here within the United States?

WILKINS: Oh, yeah, and now the movement in the South was really beginning to occupy a larger and larger portion of my psyche. And I think that that's part of why I began to feel that law practice in any form was just not relevant.

BOND: You know, I heard you say something like that at the public forum where you spoke. And it struck me as –

WILKINS: It was in response to a question by a brilliant lawyer.

BOND: It struck me as odd in a way because you have this Thurgood Marshall example. He's a lawyer, and he's winning these victories because he is a lawyer. The law is a tool that can be used. And I am surprised that you sort of rejected it.

WILKINS: That I rejected working for Thurgood?

BOND: No, that you rejected the law as a tool.

WILKINS: Well, in part it had nothing to do with race. I just didn't like the law. I could do it, but it was just tricks. I mean, there is nothing mysterious about the law. If I were a lawyer now, I'd be – and had just gone the commercial route – I'd be very rich. I mean, first of all you have to be able to stand up and talk. Secondly, you have to remember what the person said. Thirdly, you need to be able to read statutes and understand them. Fourthly, you need to be able to manipulate this and that and the other thing to make meaning what you wanted to say instead of the plain reading. Well, that's just all tricks. And I didn't enjoy the tricks. And besides, the overall problem of doing law is that somebody pays you to think about what they want you to think about. And I figured out very early on that a large part of your life is thinking. And I wanted that part of my life to be thinking about what I wanted to think about and not what somebody else was paying me to think about.

BOND: But you have this Thurgood Marshall example. Somebody's paying him to think about –

WILKINS: Yes, but I am not going to go to work for Thurgood.

BOND: Well, and there was no alternative?


BOND: No complementary alternative to the NAACP or – ?

WILKINS: Except the Justice Department. But Bobby Kennedy was not hiring black lawyers to work on civil rights issues, so again I went into an international setting where I was dealing with Africa and –

BOND: You go to AID.

WILKINS: Go to AID. And I had Africa and Asia. So I still had the same interests that I had had in my law firm, except now I am really dealing with it in a more profound way because I'm dealing with problems of developments rather than their legal problems at the UN.