Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership Potential

BOND: Something that strikes me as all this conversation has continued. Last night, you said you did not think of yourself as a leader, but a helper. But it just strikes me that in high school, in college, in law school, and in these subsequent professional positions – welfare department, law firm, now the government – that you've been expressing and acting as if you were a leader.

WILKINS: Well, I didn't –

BOND: Now, I am not denying that you are also a helper.

WILKINS: Now, I didn't really think of myself as a leader. I thought of myself as a – in my evolving conception of myself, I saw myself as a very fortunate black person. I mean, very few people born in the '30s – black people – had two parents who went to college. We weren't – my mother says we were poor, I did not realize that we were poor. But we weren't poor in aspiration. We did not think of ourselves as people who were powerless. And that was great good fortune. And the values that I got from my parents were that you used whatever talents you had to help people, and that there was no option but to do that. So – and I never aspired to be a leader. I never aspired to be a famous activist. I mean, to leap ahead, we went – when Randall Robinson and Eleanor Holmes Norton and Mary Francis Berry went and sat in at the South African Embassy in 1984, I did not know anything about it. I was just struck by the audacity of what they had done. And so they had a press conference. I went to it. And as they were walking out I said to Randall, "Gee, if there is anything I can do to help you guys, let me know." And about two weeks later, Mary called me and said, "Come have lunch with Randall and me." And I did, and they said, "We need some media savvy, would you help us?" And I said, "Sure." And I helped. Well, ultimately, I became to be known correctly as one of the four or five leaders of that movement. But I didn't go to the movement to be the leader.

BOND: No, I understand that.

WILKINS: I just went to help.

BOND: But nonetheless you became recognized as one of the leaders of that movement and were a leader of that movement.

WILKINS: That's true. But I didn't go to be the leader.

BOND: No. No, no. So, whether sought or not, you became a leadership figure in this earlier phase of your career and subsequently later in your career.