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ROGER WILKINS

Roger Wilkins
Pulitzer Prize for Journalism, 1972
Professor, George Mason University
From "Explorations in Black Leadership" series
"Leadership in Journalism: An Historical Perspective"
March 6, 2001

Roger Wilkins: My general view of race in this country has changed remarkably over my lifetime. Since I was born in segregation and I understood its strictures and its power, as a young person I believed that the south would be segregated at least until the year 2000, which of course at that time seemed like eternity to me. I thought that the struggle in the south, which I moved from when my father died, really had to be carried out by people in the south because we northerners knew nothing about it. There was a terrible struggle to be carried out in the north which blamed the south for all of its racial problems and could not recognize the racism it was practicing uniformally throughout the society when it was occurring right in front of its nose.

I became a civil arts person very early in high school and in college I was president of the student NAACP at the University of Michigan. Then I went to law school and I thought that I wanted to be an international lawyer. I really was drawn to the struggles of the African countries and the East Asian countries to be free of colonialism. I thought that as an international lawyer I might have a chance to do something about that. One summer, the summer of ’55 between my Junior and Senior year in law school, I worked with Thurgood. I remember Thurgood made a comment to me that stuck with me forever. We were working on a brief late, he was writing, I was scratching around in the stacks looking for cases for him. There was tremendous tension in the black leadership at that time and it was complicating the case. We worked until maybe two o’clock in the morning and then we went out and took a taxi to his house, where I was staying that night. In the taxi he was grumbling about these people who were arguing with each other and he said, "the trouble with this movement is that there are too many people who want to be leaders and not enough people who want to be helpers!" I thought that was very wise, then, and I think it is very wise, now. I suppose I should tell you that if I think of my career in anyway it is that as a helper.

I had an epiphany one day when I was in the government and Julian and his friends were out marching in the south making differences and I had this cushy job up in Washington, I wasn’t very comfortable about it, but I also knew that I wouldn’t be very effective in the south, but I also knew the Kennedy Administration was dragging its feet on Civil Rights. It was driving me nuts. And I had, as a high –level assistant to the administrator of AID, access to aids in the White House. All of the sudden it became acute when it became clear that my boss was going to be fired and that I would no longer be near the top of the agency and my access to the White House would evaporate. So, I knew then that it was a make-or-break time for me – I really had to put the pressure on them. As far as I could tell, there were very few people doing what I had been doing in the White House. I had their attention because people like Julian and Martin and John Lewis and the rest of them were down there marching all around and keeping the country’s attention on them. And they did not quite know what to do, and they didn’t know how to deal, so they would listen to me. So, I said, "we really got to make a push now." And then I got scared and thought that if you make a push you are probably going to ruin your access forever. You are going to ruin your chances, you are now on an upward escalator, but you say this and you are going to be done. They won’t let you move anymore. And so, there was this tension between what I knew had to be done and my desires for success and prominence. And I finally, in the dark of night some point when I was wrestling with my soul, said, "what in the hell were you educated for, anyway? Why are you here? What is the point of your being here if it is not to say things to people on behalf of people who cannot be here and say these things for themselves? What does it matter if you don’t get a big, fancy job in the administration after this? You have had a nice ride." So, I went in and I really just laid it all out to my friend in the starkest terms. He said, "look, Roger, I find what you say compelling, but I’m not the civil rights guy. But if you will write a memo to me telling me of all that you do and what you think ought to be in the Civil Rights Movement, I promise you I will give it to the president." This was in the late fall of 1962.

And so I did. It was blistering because you could not be black and have a live spirit at the time and not be moved by what was going on and my prose was animated by that. I gave it to him and my prophesy came true: Robert Kennedy was so outraged by my characterization of his operation in the Justice Department as being Lilly-white, paternalistic and condescending so that he said, "he’s brash, he’s green, he doesn’t know what he’s doing and I never want him near my justice department."

I was called in to see the White House Council, which is to the credit of their administration, where they said, "do you really believe that President Kennedy doesn’t believe?" And I said, "yeah." They said, "how can you possibly say that?" I pointed out to them, while the president was around telling all the other regencies in town that they have to hire black people and that you can’t practice tokenism, that he was practicing tokenism because he only had one black of any prominence on his staff, and everybody knew that guy was a cipher. And he looked at me, and to his credit they said, "okay, you give me some names and we will hire some people." And, they did. In addition, some of the proposals that I made in that memorandum found their way into what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Obviously, they didn’t just take it out of my stuff, they took it from a lot of other places, but at least some of the ideas survived to some degree. I never turned back. After that I left foreign affairs and found a job in civil rights in the government. Martin King and Andy Young used to say that I was the spearhead of the civil rights inside the federal government. I was always pleased that that was how they viewed me.

My jobs, always after that, were really as a helper, an inside guy, inside organizations that most black people could not penetrate because of lack of contacts, sufficient education, or even an outward demeanor that was acceptable to white people. They thought I was a gentleman and they didn’t know that inside there was a very black guy who cared very deeply and would never stop. I guess if I had a career that I could describe, I would say it was as a can opener that tried to pry open previously white institutions and make them less racist than they were before I got there. That is what I did when I was in the Justice Department. That is what I did when I was at the Ford Foundation.

I went into journalism, really, because of my father whose life was taken away from him when he was young. I was offered a job in journalism when I was just about the age that he was when he died. I took a job at the Washington Post that was much less salary than I was making at the Ford Foundation, but I was much happier at the Post for awhile. I was able, again, to say for people who did not have a chance to write in the newspaper or a chance to write for a mass audience I tried to say the things that the people who had no voice in the public discourse might say if they had my opportunities. I also fought inside newspapers. I would say that, probably, newspapers are the hardest place to fight racism because it is telling the story of a racist society with copy that has to be filtered through editors for whom racism is the norm and got to where they got, in part, because of the racism in society. Their view is that the only clear way to see and understand America is through the eyes of successful, upper middle class, white males. Any other point of view is undervalued because it is not the prevailing view, even though you have been to places and seen things that they have never been to and seen (and that’s what they want most reporters to do). But, if you go to the places where there is racism in America, and they have not been there, but they think they have, they don’t want to see it because they say that your view is skewed. One of my friends said, "you know, my editor is always telling me that my view is clouded by my blackness, and it never occurs to him that his view is clouded by his whiteness!" The trouble is that the black writer and reporter, or for any writer, is that you hand what you have written to somebody—a professor, a book editor, a newspaper editor. In that period between the time that you hand it over and the time you get the judgement, you feel vulnerable, tentative, and like a supplement. Editors know that and they use it against writers all the time in newspapers – white writers, women writers, all writers. But they especially used it in my day at least, against black writers. And so, you were always fighting for your belief in yourself and your dignity.

The only thing that kept me going as long as I did in newspapers were two things: I knew I was good, so I didn’t care if quit because I knew I could get another job. I quit the Post when it got to hard when they closed in and clamped down. So I said, "I don’t need this anymore." I quit and went to New York Times. I did The Times for seven and a half years and sided with the black reporters who were claiming racism in the newsroom and throughout the paper. I testified in a deposition that persuaded the board of trustees, the board of directors, of the company that they had to settle. But, it also persuaded the executive editor of the paper that he was going to destroy me, so it was time to go.

I never wavered in the things that I believed. I must say that those fights really hurt. They took a lot out of me. I didn’t always do them right, well, neatly or cleanly. There are people in each one of those institutions that would say, in retrospect, that I really changed the institution and that I helped. I suppose that is true. I was always animated by this thought that you have to give a voice to the voices. Now that I’m almost seventy years old and can look back at all of this and say to myself what have I seen and how has it changed. What I see is that the problem is far far deeper than I ever believed it could be because it has to do with people’s identity, the basic understandings on which the culture was based, it’s passed on from parent to child as part of their identity. If you think that the next great battle is the spatial battle – that is the sprawl that makes highways impassable and cities unlivable and these are a pocket of untouchable blacks, eliminating that by democratizing the space in America -- that is going to be that hardest thing ever because a man’s home is a castle. If we move blacks onto a suburban street, it is an assault on the identity of the people who live on that street, not to mention that they worry about the value of their homes.

After so many of us were exhausted physically and mentally (and every other way) after the sixties were over when we all believed that if you make this great push, it can all be fixed, I realized then that this struggle was not a sprint, but that it was a long distance run. Now I realize something else. It is not a long distance run. It is a relay race that is carried on by lots of long distance runners. The anti-slavery people back in the eighteenth century never lived to see the end of slavery. Frederick Douglasss never lived to see the undoing of all the horrors of post-reconstruction. DuBois left the country before he could see the fruits of the Civil Rights Movement. Thurgood thought he was going to see the end of segregation by five years after Brown. But, we have seen great changes.

So, what I know is two things: That decency is injected into the world, and certainly into this country, only by effort and only by struggle. Evil is going to grow. It is the natural order of things. That means that there always has to be struggle. You never can count on your goals and ends being achieved in your time. The best you can do is run the race as best you can, keep the spark alive, and hand the baton off to the next people. Your award is not having been a leader, but having been a helper in the race, and having carried out your end when you were here.

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