Saturday Open Thread | Black Historical Political Figures: Governor L. Douglas Wilder

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.”


Entered Politics

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.

In the general election, Wilder faced Republican J. Marshall Coleman, a surprise winner of a divisive Republican primary. Coleman tried to paint Wilder as a liberal while presenting himself as the conservative alternative, a stance more in line with Virginia’s political tradition. He pledged to make the war on drugs a central goal of his administration and ran hard-hitting television commercials accusing Wilder of being soft on crime. Wilder, meanwhile, focused on positive themes, including his own rise from poverty to a prominent political standing and his ability to form coalitions. The underlying message was clear: he wanted to reassure independent and Republican-leaning whites that he was an approachable politician. Abortion, however, became the overriding issue of the campaign. Coleman’s staff included activists from anti-abortion organizations, while Wilder’s media consultant had previously worked for a national abortion-rights group. Polls indicated that Wilder benefited more from the issue than Coleman did because most Virginians favored at least some degree of abortion rights. Coleman opposed abortion in nearly all cases.

And while abortion was the most visible issue, race was regarded as a significant force underlying the election. Although Wilder made few direct appeals to the black community, support for him there was close to unanimous. He campaigned hard in white neighborhoods, especially the rural regions of southern Virginia. Spending a record $7 million on the campaign, Wilder was, according to polls, comfortably in the lead going into election day. When the votes were counted, however, he won by the slimmest of margins, beating Coleman by only 6,741 votes.

Became Virginia’s First Black Governor

Wilder was inaugurated as governor in January of 1990. “As we salute the idea of freedom today, let us pledge to extend that same freedom to others tomorrow,” he told a huge crowd of spectators gathered at Capitol Square. “For we know that freedom is but a word for the man or woman who needs and cannot find a job.” Quoting black playwright Lorraine Hansberry, he added, “Freedom is a dream deferred when it dries up like a raisin in the sun.”

As governor, Wilder became known for conducting matters in Richmond secretively and earned a reputation for being vengeful toward his adversaries and inconstant in his political agenda. Though he has maintained his pro-choice position and continues to stress the importance of enacting civil rights legislation, he has eschewed his liberal views on the death penalty and taxation. He also gained the attention of the national media in what was referred to as a feud with a former governor of Virginia, U.S. Senator Charles Robb. A years-long rivalry between the two Democrats culminated in allegations by Wilder of phone tapping, and a criminal investigation was initiated. Commenting that the Wilder-Robb dissension may have “irreparably hurt” Robb’s career and “[raised] new questions about the Democrats’ image,” Newsweek correspondent Bill Turque noted in 1991, “For Wilder, the feud is likely to burn much of the historic luster from his national reputation.”

Wilder has, however, received praise from financial analysts as well as his constituents for maintaining his firm views on fiscal matters, trimming Virginia’s budget and cutting government staff during the recession of the early 1990s. “My vision is of a government that is prioritizing the spending of the taxpayer’s money,” he explained to Range. “We should spend for needed services, not for nonsense.” Virginia, an especially hard-hit state during the economic downturn, was faced with a budget deficit of $2.2 billion upon Wilder’s inauguration. “Instead of raising taxes,” observed Time correspondent Laurence I. Barrett, “[Wilder] deftly shaved expenses without cutting major arteries. He also created a $200 million contingency fund as a buffer against a 1992 deficit.”

After only two years in the governor’s mansion, Wilder announced on September 13, 1991, his intentions to seek the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. Taking his moderate credo to the national arena, Wilder rose as a viable candidate who offered black voters an alternative to the more liberal aspirant of past elections, Jesse Jackson. The governor drew criticism early in his underfunded campaign, though, for such vague policy proposals as his Put America First Initiative, which entailed a “$50 billion spending cut, $35 billion in breaks for middle-class families and $15 billion in ‘reduce bureaucracy grants’ to states,” according to Time’ s Barrett. “How this game of musical dollars would lessen the deficit is murky,” the reporter remarked.

Pointing to the financial straits of the state of Virginia, Wilder withdrew his candidacy in January of 1992. “I said that if it became too difficult for me to govern the Commonwealth and conduct a presidential campaign, I would terminate one endeavor,” Wilder announced in his State of the Commonwealth address to the Virginia General Assembly, as quoted in the New York Times. “I was left with a choice: either to devote all of my energies to delivering the message or to guiding Virginia through these difficult times. I have chosen the latter.” Ayres also cited lack of voter confidence and Wilder’s less than one million-dollar store of campaign funds as reasons for his withdrawal. With his term as governor ending in 1994, Wilder, a man who, according to Barrett, “is in love with public life,” will no doubt remain an influential figure in American politics. “I am concerned about the direction this country is headed,” he declared, according to Ayres. “I have the vision, experience and fortitude that is necessary to help reverse this dangerous trend and put this great nation of ours on the right track again.”

Back to Politics

Wilder left office in 1994, obeying a Virginia law that does not allow governors to hold consecutive terms. For nearly ten years, Wilder engaged in the types of activities befitting an ex-governor: he briefly hosted a morning radio show that was broadcast in Virginia, Baltimore, Maryland, Washington, D.C.; he taught political science at Virginia Commonwealth University; he practiced law; and in 2002 he served as chairman of a commission to study efficiency in Virginia’s state government. He was honored to be considered for the presidency of his alma mater, Virginia Union University, though he declined the offer, and he has consistently backed efforts to create a National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

By 2004, however, the call of politics had pulled him back into public life. The city of Richmond, Viriginia, had been in decline for years, with poverty and crime plaguing the once-proud city. Citizens approved a new form of government headed by a strong mayor, and many in the city called for the experienced ex-governor to join the race. Explaining to Jet why he was willing to run, Wilder said: “I’m not entitled to rest when I look and see little kids being shot up and maimed and crippled, and people are afraid to go on their streets and walk and to be educated in their schools. I began to look around and see the reason.” In November of 2004 Wilder easily won the mayoral election, trouncing opponents who were outmatched against such a seasoned politician. In his acceptance speech, quoted in the Washington Post, Wilder told the citizens of Richmond: “This is a new beginning.” In truth, it was a new beginning for Wilder as well.

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27 Responses to Saturday Open Thread | Black Historical Political Figures: Governor L. Douglas Wilder

  1. rikyrah says:

    The Cubs are going to the World Series!!!!!!

  2. yahtzeebutterfly says:

    This photo really hit me hard.

    What a beautiful, outstanding and dignified family in the photo.

    • Liza says:

      Yeah, the mid-1950s in the Confederacy. I remember those dresses for little girls in pastel colors with the puff sleeves and the sash in the back. I hated them so much. I must have complained because my mother made me a dress that was navy blue with red buttons and straight sleeves. I was always a serious child and I didn’t want to look “cute”, I wanted to look serious and smart.

      I remember those water fountains too.

      • yahtzeebutterfly says:

        Liza, I was lying down resting and thinking about that photo. It has me so upset. You know, the contrast between that dignified family and the demented society that would create and enforce Jim Crow.

        “I remember those water fountains too.”

        So much packed in those words, yes?

        Nifty, that you wanted to look serious and smart and not cute. Bet you were wise beyond your years.

      • yahtzeebutterfly says:

        I hope people go through their family photos and recognize which ones are important to share for the historical record. It would be great if their were an central internet site for such historical preservation.

    • Liza says:

      I’m looking at the mom and the older daughter and their skirts. Women wore “petticoats” to get them to stay flared out like that, there was no other way. My older sisters wore them, and I did too a few times when I had to get dressed up for church. Needless to say, this was not in alignment with the “serious” look that I preferred. But they actually look kind of cute and stylish in this picture.

    • Liza says:

      I wrote something awhile back, several years ago actually, about the water fountains. I would share it but I am using my husband’s computer for the last couple of months. I had a hard drive failure, my first ever, and haven’t gotten around to setting up my new PC and loading my backup files.

      But, yes, those fountains as well as other signs of segregation are indelible in my memory.

      Gordon Parks, of course, was a great photographer. This picture is intended to tell a story, to create an image of an injustice that is impossible not to see. It is an image that shames the perpetrators and those who are complicit with their silence. And it is also a historical reference, forever haunting.

      It is easy to see how this became an iconic image. The beautiful well-dressed family, the backdrop of colorful signs advertising all the wonderful ice cream concoctions available, but right in the middle of it all is Jim Crow. A true masterpiece of composition and photographic journalism.

      • yahtzeebutterfly says:

        Liza, wow, you really nailed it! You expressed it so well. You are a gifted writer.

        And, yes, it IS “an image that shames the perpetrators and those who are complicit with their silence.”

        (I’m sorry to hear about the hard drive failure on your computer.)

      • Liza says:

        TY, Yahtzee. I’ve had a long time to think about this.

      • yahtzeebutterfly says:

        (Thanks for making me aware that this is a Gordon Parks photo)

  3. yahtzeebutterfly says:

    “Lansing’s first African-American teacher to enter Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame”

    “Dr. Olivia Letts…was the first African-American teacher hired by the Lansing School District. She started that job in 1951 and from there, Letts spent her life as an advocate for education, community service and civil rights>”

  4. yahtzeebutterfly says:

    “The Invisible Art Behind the Exhibits at the African American History Museum
    Zachary Hudson specializes in mounts for the objects on display.”

    “Zachary Hudson has succeeded if you never notice what he does for a living. As an exhibit specialist for the Smithsonian Institution Exhibits, the 25-year-old is responsible for transporting hundreds of historical objects from behind closed doors to carefully constructed, temperature-controlled displays. He is also responsible for making sure those displays do as little as possible to detract from the powerful objects that they hold…

    “Hudson focuses on mount-making, the highly specific and often painfully detailed build-outs used to prop up and hold various museum artifacts. He describes himself as having a somewhat minimalist approach to his work in that, on average, he will only utilize 30-50 tools to build each mount. Some exhibit specialists have tools that number in the hundreds, ranging from technical pliers to Brillo pads, latex gloves, and minuscule jewelers tools. Hudson was one of several such specialized mount-makers working on the National Museum of African American History and Culture project.

    “Each exhibit incorporates input from dozens of specialists–electricians and designers, directors, architects, graphics developers, historians, historic preservationists, and yes, mount-makers. Hudson and each of his fellow mount-makers receives a briefing on the vision for each and every object’s display that comes from exhibit designers and takes into the technical aspects of the exhibit in the form of a printed packet, which distills down all pertinent information. There is a lot to consider: Is the object fragile? Can it handle being touched more than once or twice? At what height should it be displayed? What features do the historians want highlighted visually? How can the lighting be set up to have the most impact? At what temperature and humidity should the case be set to ensure the artifacts longevity? From there, the vision is in his Hudson’s hands. It is his duty to make the theoretical happen.”
    “Above left to right: a wages book from 1775; a slave ship model; various forms of African currencies, including the hoe blade, cowrie shells, and a Katanga cross”

  5. yahtzeebutterfly says:

    (Pool/CNN) – If you’re hoping to tour the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., you’ll have to wait until spring.
    Tickets to the newest Smithsonian installation are sold out through March.
    You need a ticket with a date to enter the museum although it’s free.”

    • Liza says:

      Well, I’m not surprised. I think it’s going to be difficult to get in for quite awhile. That’s one of the reasons why I think there should be a documentary. And a lot of folks are never going to be able to make the trip to DC.

      • yahtzeebutterfly says:

        Good points, Liza. I wish there were traveling exhibits for those who will be unable to make the trip. Apparently there is so much material in Smithsonian warehouses…why not use those items in a traveling exhibit.

        I like your idea of a documentary…like a cyber tour of the museum.

      • Liza says:

        I think they’ll make one eventually.

  6. yahtzeebutterfly says:×788
    “George Leighton, pioneering African-American judge, lawyer turns 104”


    “Stunned by an ACLU article that described Chicago police brutality as declining under a new top cop, attorney George Leighton responded with a lengthy letter detailing allegations of beatings, torture and even a death at the hands of officers.

    “Leighton, then an NAACP leader, blasted the civil liberties group for its “complacency and naivete,” saying that unless “something was done about the plague in this community,” a “heartbreaking tragedy” would force the U.S. Justice Department to investigate wrongdoing by Chicago police.

    “More than five decades later, Leighton’s 1963 letter — in which he also noted that Chicago police had failed to respond to a single complaint of misconduct — seems prescient amid the Justice Department probe of the Chicago Police Department in the fallout over the fatal officer-involved shooting of Laquan McDonald.

    “But as Leighton, a giant in Chicago’s legal community, turns 104 on Saturday, he can note with pride that some things have changed — partly because of the path he broke during a career that spanned seven decades and included groundbreaking early civil rights work as well as lengthy stints on the bench at local, appellate and federal courts.”

  7. rikyrah says:

    Good Morning 😀, Everyone 😊

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