L. Douglas Wilder, a ‘Son of Virginia,’ discusses his new book

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L. Douglas Wilder, the namesake of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs who made history when he became the nation’s first elected African-American governor, describes his remarkable life and rise in politics in his newly released book, “Son of Virginia.”

The grandson of slaves, Wilder grew up in segregated Richmond. After graduating from Virginia Union University in 1951 with a degree in chemistry, he served in the Korean War, seeing action and earning a Bronze Star. He then pursued his law degree at Howard University and returned to his hometown to open a law practice.  

The Democrat started making political history with his election to the Virginia Senate in 1969, becoming the first African-American to serve in the chamber since Reconstruction. Landmark victories followed — lieutenant governor in 1985, governor in 1989 and, in 2004, the first mayor of Richmond elected citywide in more than 50 years.

The title of his book comes from the stirring conclusion of his 1990 gubernatorial inaugural address in which he declared, “I am a son of Virginia.” Wilder, a distinguished professor at the Wilder School, recently discussed his memoir and the lessons students can draw from his extraordinary personal journey.

When did you decide to write a book?

I started something some years ago, and when I looked back at it sometime later, I said, “This isn’t good,” because it has a bit of what I called harshness relative to assessment of the facts. You have to allow time and the settlement of the sentiment to see what has been collected and what the tea leaves read. And I thought there was more of a story here to tell about Virginia and the nation rather than writing about every nuance in my life.

Look at what’s happened in Virginia. Jamestown, where the nation was founded. Yorktown, where the British surrendered. Appomattox, where Lee laid down his arms and the nation was reunited. Richmond, where a new day was ushered in with my election as governor. If that was going to happen anywhere, it was going to happen in Virginia. I am a product of that — that’s why I said I am a son of Virginia.

I yield to no man in believing that Virginia is in the forefront of the states, which we’ll be seeing in the next presidential election.

What are some leadership lessons that students can learn from your book?

What stick-to-it-ness attitude could mean relative to leadership. I’ve always defined leadership as a tautology that defines itself. It means to step out and to lead, to effectuate a purpose, to have a goal, and to be dogged to the extent of not being deterred.

Can you talk about why you opened the book with your efforts to abolish as the state song “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” which romanticizes slavery. You denounced the song in your first speech on the floor of the Virginia Senate in 1970, three weeks into your term. And as you write in your book, “You could hear a pin drop.”

Catherine Whitney, with whom I collaborated on the book, suggested that we start off with “Carry Me Back” because it was the beginning of my political career more so than the beginning of my life. And the song was never played again after 1970. So in effect what happened was I stopped the singing of the song — whether the law passed or not didn’t matter. [The General Assembly retired “Carry Me Back” as the state song in 1997.] 

What drew you to politics?

To the extent that I first got attracted to politics it’s because I said, “If that’s where the law is made, then I need to be part of that” — whether a law is being enacted, effected or needs changing. I wanted my hands to be on the knife that cuts the pie.

What advice would you give students about getting involved in politics or public policy?

Go to meetings of the community. Go to the city council meetings, planning commission meetings. Go to school board meetings, go to the legislature. Whether you speak or not, go to learn. Watch the law being made. Learn not just how it’s being made but how the changes are made. “Shall” to “may” changes the entirety of the commitment.

If students are going to be a part of the political system, they’ve got to know money. They don’t have to be economics majors or finance specialists, but they’ve got to pay attention to where the dollars are, where the money comes from, on whom they will be spent.

One thing I drill into students is to watch the money, because there’s no proposition that comes forth either in terms of the law or programming that doesn’t involve money.

One of the problems affecting the nation today is when and will we really come to grips with the trillions of dollars of debt we have. It’s not a question as to whether we have the debt — but debt for what, and who benefits?

One of the things that attracted me to Virginia Commonwealth University was to be constantly surrounded by younger minds and younger thinking and to be challenged. And they will challenge you! I tell students that this is as fascinating a time as any person could want to live in. There’s so much to do. So many horizons to be broadened and breached and reached — going to the moon, going to Mars, circling the globe just like that.

You have to be involved in the decision-making process. The words of Abraham Lincoln still resonate with me — of the people, by the people, for the people.

L. Douglas Wilder
L. Douglas Wilder

Borrowing from Socrates, your mother used to tell you, “Know your right. Then proceed.” What do those words mean to you?

If you are in the right, by your determining and justification, then proceed.

There used to be “colored” and “white” ads in the paper. I had landed a job in the old State Planters Bank running the elevator. There was a young white fellow I had met. He had finished high school, I had finished Armstrong High School. He had a nice job wearing a tie and I was wearing my elevator suit. And I said to my mother, “I don’t understand. Why can’t I find something better than this?”

And she said, “You just need to study, continue to know what’s going on, don’t be afraid of anybody disagreeing with you and proceed. Don’t go off on a lark, don’t go off on some half-crocked notion. You need to be convinced in your heart-of-hearts of your own personal credo, your own set of personal beliefs. And when you get there, don’t let anyone dissuade you, not even me. Because that’s what you have determined to be your credo.”

What career advice do you have for students?

I think success is a never-ending quest.

I tell students don’t worry if you can’t decide on what you want to be. I think success is a never-ending quest. It’s going to take you some time to chart your course. Whatever it is, make sure it spirals upwards. Don’t let it be the attraction of clothes or money or wealth, let it be something you feel you can give to life as it relates to improvement. Listen. Be a part of politics. Some of the best political leaders in the nation have never been elected to office. Your mind is like a muscle — you have to exercise it.

What’s the one takeaway for students to have from “Son of Virginia?”

Be afraid of nothing. Dare at whatever you choose. Remember dumb people run absolutely nothing. Shape the world to the extent that you can to the high positivity of the potential of individuals. The president of Howard University used to talk about that.

Don’t satisfy yourself with what you’ve done if you can do better. Do the best you can. And why? If you do the best you can, you’ll be challenged to do more.


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