Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Divisions in the Black Community

BOND: Let me go to a different subject, and another that's been a theme of yours fairly constantly, and that's black leadership. You wrote a series of wonderful pieces, I saw, about the trauma the NAACP was going through, and a celebratory column when Myrlie Evers was elected chair, and condemnatory columns when the previous administration was bankrupting the organization – taking the NAACP and its leadership to task, celebrating them when they made a turn for the better. And here is a column about Vernon Jordan from, I think, 1981, called "Black Leaders and Needs." It's from the Times. And it celebrates Vernon Jordan for combining success of the kind we're talking about – enormous financial success – but with a commitment to civil rights and justice all along. And I guess that's what you were talking about in our previous conversation a minute ago about the lack of the melding of these two.


BOND: Why is that? Why do we not have more Vernon Jordans? People who – we have a lot of people making a lot of money right now. But why don't we have people who combine his social conscience? Where is that going?

WILKINS: Well, two things. Vernon was born poor and black in segregated Atlanta. And he grew up in the movement. A lot of the people who are now becoming affluent, as I said, don't have that advantage. But there's another thing. And that is that powerful American society, American capitalism at its upper reaches, at least, is very, very seductive. It has been said to me many times, "If you just go along, you will get along. If you don't – If you just accept our values – and our values are that we gotta make a lot of money and we will do things for black people when it is convenient to us, that if we can round off the hard edges of these problems, we will slide by them. And if you do that, your salary will increase, your perks will increase, you will be included in our social milieu." And they are re-creating for these people, at the upper reaches of capitalism, the same kind of feeling that I had as a teenager – "I am not going to be like those other black people. I am going to be acceptable to white people." Well, I got over that. You know, you grow out of it. I'm glad I had and understood it, began to understand when I was a teenager, and was mature enough to be ashamed of it and put it behind me. But for people who have not gone through the crucible of the Civil Rights movement, who are told often by their black parents that "what you're supposed to do is go and make a lot of money and be an American success," they don't have the defenses that we had against this separation of themselves from the black poor. They equate progress of the race with their own bank accounts. And there have not been enough countervailing lessons in this society to tell them that's not true.

BOND: How could we give them the lessons? How do you give them the lessons? I mean, you give them to them here in print. But how do we, in the larger society – how do we give people those lessons?

WILKINS: Well, I'm not sure. I'm not sure that I have very many answers. As you know, you persuaded me to become the publisher of the NAACP magazine, the Crisis. And I hope that we'll get enough members of the NAACP – which is an easy way to be, a painless way to be involved in the movement – and we will provide them in the Crisis with enough examples of people who are doing very constructive things, that we use that in our time the way Du Bois used the Crisis to mobilize people to energy in another time. So, that's one of my hopes. The other is that we do have a whole new generation of black journalists now. There is now kind of – unlike my time a quarter of a century ago – there is a critical mass. I mean, there couldn't have been a National Association of Black Journalists when I was there. There'd have been about eleven of us, six from the Post and five from the Times, and that would've been about it. But now they really do have big conventions and they really do – they're struggling to get the message, the kind of message that I tried to get out when I was writing a lot more than I do now. And a lot of people pay a lot of attention to that. We have a columnist named Courtland Milloy in Washington. And as you know a lot of people read Courtland. I am just amazed, and there is a black woman who writes – Donna Britt, people pay attention to her. And I – all over the country. Bob Herbert in New York.

BOND: Clarence Page.

WILKINS: Yeah. So that the black voices are there and the public intellectuals. I mean, you know, you can't go to a lecture by Cornel West and not come out with your blood stirred, you know? So, you know, there is the NAACP doing things. The NAACP, you, and Myrlie have really brought the NAACP back from a disgraceful place. It is a respectable organization. Black people can now again be proud to be a part of it. The activism of the NAACP, during the election and afterwards in Florida when the lawsuits [were] breaking out, made people say, instead of the old days when people said, "Well, the NAACP is doing nothing," now they see it as an active, vital part of American life. So, I think revitalizing the movement, giving it higher profile. I wish the Urban League had a higher profile. If people – because there are parents all over this country, black parents who care. They are engaged in the issue of their kids – or kids that they have kind of adopted – getting a decent education. And if national movements can somehow hook into that, it would be wonderful.