Today’s Black Political Trailblazer is L. Douglas Wilder.
On January 14, 1990, L. Douglas Wilder was sworn in as governor of Virginia, joining a line that includes Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Harry F. Byrd. Wilder became Virginia’s 66th governor and the nation’s first elected black governor. In 2004, Wilder became the first mayor of the city of Richmond, Virginia. The grandson of slaves, Wilder is a moderate who immediately became a major influence in the U.S. political arena, announcing—but eventually repealing—his decision to run for the Democratic nomination in the 1992 U.S. presidential election. As a Washington Post correspondent wrote shortly before Wilder’s gubernatorial inauguration, “Willingly or not, Wilder becomes a symbol of the changing climate of politics in the South and the nation as a whole, the aspirations of American blacks to assume an equal place in society, and the uncertainties that confront any public leader as a new century looms.”
Wilder himself appeared aware of the significance of his victory in Virginia, noting in the Richmond News Leader that his office would be housed just blocks from the old White House of the Confederacy and just miles from the segregated neighborhood where he grew up. “As a boy,” he recalled in the News Leader, “I read the writings of [former U.S. President] Abraham Lincoln about freedom and equality, and I knew they were referring to me. My victory fulfills all of the dreams that could be dreamed by any person.”
After establishing himself as one of Richmond’s up-and-coming criminal lawyers, Wilder entered politics in 1969. He announced his bid for a vacant state senate seat, fully aware that no black had ever been elected to that body. Wilder, a Democrat, won a three-way race with less than 50 percent of the vote. Over the next 16 years, however, he was never opposed in a reelection bid for the seat.
In the Virginia state senate Wilder immediately attracted attention. In his first speech, in February of 1970, he called for dropping the state song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia,” because its lyrics glorified slavery and were offensive to blacks. Wilder told his fellow legislators that he and his wife had walked out of an official dinner when the song was played, with its warm words about “old massa” and the state where “this old darky’s heart am long’d to go.” His bill never passed and “Carry Me Back” remains Virginia’s official, if rarely sung, anthem. His protest, however, immediately established Wilder as the senate’s angry young man. Though he had never attended a civil rights demonstration, he was now seen as a spokesperson for black Virginians.
“I was perceived as the fair housing guy, the Martin Luther King guy, the ‘Carry Me Back’ guy,” he pointed out in the Atlanta Constitution. “All the pictures of me showed the Afro [haircut], and I was always frowning or snarling. But my record was working with people, too.” In fact, Wilder de-emphasized civil rights issues during his 16 years in the legislature, instead focusing on becoming a power among established leaders in the senate. He did, however, launch a nine-year campaign for a state holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with the effort ending in a compromise; the day was combined with a long-standing state holiday in January honoring Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, resulting in a “Lee-Jackson-King Day.”
Over the years, noted the Washington Post, “Wilder earned a reputation as a shrewd, pragmatic politician who used his engaging personality and deft sense of humor, as well as his clout with black voters, to maneuver into the inner circles of power in Virginia’s clubby legislature.” Wilder’s close friend and political ally, Jay Shropshire, told the Washington Post, “He was the black kingpin. They all called on Doug Wilder either up front or out back.” The extent of this power was made clear in 1982 when he managed almost single-handedly to block the nomination of the man chosen by Democratic Governor Charles Robb to run for the U.S. Senate. The aspiring nominee, Owen Pickett, then a member of the state House of Delegates, was too conservative to suit Wilder, so Wilder announced plans to run against Pickett as an independent. The threat scuttled Pickett’s nomination.
A Power in the Senate
As Wilder’s seniority grew in the senate so did his power. By 1985 he was a committee chairman and was rated among the five most influential senators. And while his early legislative record could be considered liberal—particularly on law-and-order issues—he grew more conservative over the years. He began to sponsor fewer anti-discrimination bills and became increasingly interested in stiffening jail sentences.
Republican opponents contended that Wilder changed his views to more conservative positions when he started to think about seeking statewide office. Wilder disagreed, telling a Philadelphia Inquirer correspondent, “When you increase your seniority, you don’t have to fight as hard to be seen and heard. I started growing politically.” Regardless, he was given little chance of success when he ran for lieutenant governor of Virginia in 1985. Prominent Democrats openly feared that public resistance to a black candidate would not only mean defeat for Wilder, but for Democrats on the rest of the statewide ticket as well. But Wilder refused to accept the conventional wisdom, renting a station wagon and, over a period of two months, visiting each of the state’s 95 counties and hundreds of its towns. The personal approach worked, and in a state where blacks constitute 19 percent of the voting population, Wilder beat his Republican opponent, 52 to 48 percent, becoming the first black candidate ever elected to statewide office.
As lieutenant governor, a job with limited duties, Wilder concentrated on politics. He made a number of highly publicized speeches urging blacks to assume more responsibility for eliminating social problems in the black community. Such addresses drew praise from conservatives who, in the past, had rarely sided with Wilder. By 1989, Wilder was in such a strong position to run for governor that only one Democrat, state senator Daniel W. Bird, Jr., of Wytheville, offered a challenge for the party’s nomination. Bird withdrew early, and Wilder was nominated unanimously.