Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Reflection on Poverty

BOND: So, what makes you go from the AID – this focus on international, Africa, Asia – to the community relations service where it is exclusively domestic? How does this – ?

WILKINS: Well, it partly was the Vietnam War. I opposed the Vietnam War. I went to Vietnam in '62, '63 and I just saw it was a loser. I saw something that the white people did not see, that it was a racist war. Not so much that we wanted to kill people of color but that we couldn't fully appreciate the tenacity, the ingenuity, and the power of the dream that these people had. And so we undervalued them as an enemy. And so we made all these really, wildly stupid prognostications. [Robert] McNamara was then saying that the war would be over by the summer of '65, end of '65 at the latest. Well, you just go on the ground and you see that that was not true. And so I came back and I opposed it, and I opposed it feverently. And I lost. I mean, the whole consensus – and I was a kid, you know, so -- and black to boot. And my career then if I were – you know, there was some thought that maybe I would transfer into the foreign service. But my career would've had to have gone through Vietnam. And I was not going to go and be involved in an effort that I thoroughly believed to be wrong and mistaken. Meanwhile, you guys were stirring it up in the South, and I just felt that it was time for me to get back into what was really most relevant to me.

BOND: So you go to the community relations service, and, in short order, bam, Watts explodes. You go there. What do you see when you go there?

WILKINS: I guess Cleveland to the tenth power. I see an isolated, despised, cut-off black community, underserved by every measure. I remember my first trip to Watts by myself, or without my boss, was with the head, the top staff man in the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission – black guy, and who subsequently worked for me at AID. And we were driving and he said, "I am glad to be able to take you down here." He said, "You know, I haven't been to Watts in ten years." You couldn't even get any place on the bus. If you wanted to go to a clinic, it would take you three-quarters of a day. No health services in the community, schools were lousy. I mean, just an island of nothing. And I'd been to Selma and I'd been to other Southern towns, and this was the same pattern repeated in Northern cities. So, it deepened my conviction that we really had to pay attention to the North. And so now, by the end of Watts, I am fully engaged in the whole idea that there has to be a Northern wing to the government's civil rights efforts.