In the early 1950s, Lawrence Douglas Wilder went job hunting at the Virginia State Employment Office with a BS in chemistry. Told there were no openings, the young black persisted and was finally told there was one opening. As a cook.
Stung with humiliation, he turned it down, determined to find something better. Last month he did. In the same room. Today Wilder guffaws at the delicious irony of it all. "That [employment agency] was right here -- in my transition office!"
The transition was from state senator to lieutenant governor of Virginia, a post the grandson of slaves won last fall in a political and sociological victory as intriguing as anyin the nation.
For Wilder, working from the capital of the old Confederacy, buried the past with a campaign that transcended race in virtually every corner of the Old Dominion.
Not only did he become the highest ranking of the nation's handful of blacks holding statewide office, he did so by spurning racial rhetoric for a broad-based appeal to the fairness of whites and the possibilities of a colorblind society.
"I wasn't going out there as a black candidate," says Wilder, who has been militant -- even confrontational -- on black issues in the past. "And I wasn't perceived that way; the people of Virginia were above that. That's where the credit goes."
Much in the story of Doug Wilder is familiar as the legendary dream -- the young black, rebuked and embittered by segregation, who comes of age and awareness in war and goes on to succeed through talent, hard work and patience.
But much is fundamentally different from the accepted truth of contemporary black politics. He has risen to power less through a messianic unifying appeal to blacks than through his ability to understand and work with whites. The key to his success, in fact, is his ability to be totally at ease with whites but not in the least obsequious.
A year ago there were "Stop Wilder" movements by Democratic leaders who feared his candidacy would wreck the ticket. Now he accepts homage from passers-by who go out of their way to greet him as he presides in the state Senate he couldn't visit as a black child. His self-confidence ("I know it comes off at times as arrogance or cockiness, but I don't mean it to") serves him well. And if there is some crowing about his victory, he speaks more often of patience and tenacity: "I believe in waiting. You have to know when and how to move, but there is nothing like waiting -- and giving chance a chance."
Wilder is only 5 feet 9 but he is always noticed. Dapper and high school trim at 55, he struts any room like a stage, his Richard Pryor mimickry accenting his anecdotes, his grin easy as his handshake, his laugh bursting forth constantly -- to show delight or derision. Clothes highlight the act, from the tan silk Countess Mara tie to the beige sport coat to the burnished wing tips and lapis pinkie ring.
* He does not suffer slights that were the norm in segregated days. Once an elevator operator in the capitol carrying Wilder up reversed the elevator when whites got on and took them down first. "You do what you have to do," says Wilder. "I had him removed!"
The first black in the Virginia Senate since Reconstruction (and the only one from 1969 to 1983), Wilder represented Richmond during the antibusing tumult of the early '70s, and at times "I could feel the hostility. Oh my Lord, whooo! I'd walk into places and . . ." -- he does his Pryor imitation of people sidestepping out of his way, glowering and whispering. He raised hackles highest with his long protest against the state song,'Carry Me Back to Old Virginia,' and its lyrics extolling joyous servitude.
"I was more interested in the magnolia mentality of the song . . . Inequities here on Earth are accepted and then prayed for in terms of having them repeated in Heaven. I caught hell. Caught hell! It is still the state song," he says, shaking his head. "But they don't play it."
As a newcomer to the Senate, Wilder devised an unusual road to power. "I didn't have any following to get things passed," but he understood well the mentality of his colleagues, and how to get them to laugh a bill to death. "So I made it a thing to be able to kill bills."
One of his first victories was against an organ-donor bill that wouldn't have required the permission of the deceased's next of kin. Treading a fine line between a lawyer's argument and a comedy routine, Wilder told the Senate that as a boy in Richmond "you'd walk past the hospital, older folks would threaten that if you weren't good the 'studient' doctors were going to get you." Declaring the bill reminiscent of those days, Wilder said if it passed, "the 'studient' doctors would be out there looking for bodies." "He painted this hilarious picture of all those people in the hospital, pushing wheelchairs and hopping on crutches to get away from the 'studient doctors'," remembers one reporter who witnessed the performance, "and they laughed that bill right back to committee."
"Then they had another bill holding people indefinitely for shoplifting without placing them under arrest," Wilder remembers. "My colleague from Richmond, Senator [Edward E.] Willey, said some of those held were not all that innocent. He said they wouldn't be all that 'lily-white.' " There were snickers. "I got up and said, 'One thing about my colleague from Richmond. He certainly knows how to call a spade a spade.' " The Senate erupted in laughter and applause. And the bill was changed.
Soon other senators started asking Wilder's help killing a bill. "That's the way you start building your cadre of support. Then lobbyists started paying attention to me. Didn't pay attention at first."
He was also befriended by an influential desk mate, the late senator William V. Rawlings, a thoughtful conservative from Virginia's hog-and-peanut Southside. He made an end run to get Wilder on the privileges and elections committee -- the committee with which the Byrd machine held power for 50 years. Wilder was unenthusiastic. "Can't you see?" Rawlings told him. "One day you'll be chairman of the committee that handles all government appointments? In a state like Virginia with a history of denying voting, all the laws relating to elections would come before you." So Rawlings chided other senators, saying "Y'all going to keep him off this, that and the other. But he's entitled to something, doggone it.' " He down-played Wilder's role. "He's gonna be a junior member. He can't hurt anything."
Wilder says softly, "But when others were resigning or defeated, I stayed on. Stayed on and stayed on! Before you knew it, 'Oh my goodness! He's chairman of the privileges and elections committee!' "
Then, in 1982, Wilder once and for all established his clout as a politician. Angered by the failure of then-governor Charles Robb and other Democrats to move harder on black issues, Wilder threatened to become an independent candidate and take black voters with him if the Democratic Party nominated Del. Owen Pickett of Virginia Beach for the U.S. Senate.
"Owen embraced Harry Byrd to the hilt and said that's the kind of senator he wanted to be," Wilder remembers. Hoping to placate Wilder, Robb ordered the state tax department to refuse tax exemptions for segregated schools. A Wilder bill to do just that had been defeated. And, the party did not nominate Pickett.
Wilder "achieved something Harry Byrd never did," says Virginia Senate Clerk J.T. Shropshire, "stopped a political party from naming its candidate. He was at the pinnacle of his power." The move also made Wilder a lot of enemies, however, and he still seems injured as he talks about friends who denounced him. One such friend is now recanting. Wilder won't even acknowledge his written apologies. "That," he says, "would be too much of a reward for him." Growing Up Black "
We were a large family (seven children) and poor as Job's turkey but it was gentle poverty. By that I mean we had music. The vases would have flowers from the yard." Wilder's father worked for an insurance company and "never made over $50 a week in his life. He never believed in asking anyone to do anything for him. He'd cut his own hair, clean his own clothing with a huge flatiron. Raised chickens and eggs. Just one of those self-reliant people.
"His mother and father were slaves. His mother could read; she tended the children of the people on the plantation." Wilder's taciturn father volunteered little about slavery and would clamp down hard on his pipe when the word was mentioned. But he told one vivid story about Wilder's grandfather "hiding in a silo when Grant took Richmond . . . scared to death. The owners had threatened him with all the things the Yankees would do if they caught him. He almost suffocated in the silo." That grandfather went on to build a house for his family of 14, one of whom "became a doctor. To be a doctor in those days, what he had to do!" Wilder's father had sacrificed his own education so his younger brother could get through medical school. And then that brother, the doctor, died at 30. "Father just gave up. That dashed all his hopes."
Like many successful politicians, Wilder was "very close" to a forceful and doting mother, whom he credits with giving him self-confidence. "She used to tell me 'You can do it all.' She would tell a story about a 'great little boy.' I would say 'Am I that great little boy?' 'Oh yes.' 'Do you know any other great little boy?' 'Ohhh no!' "
His father felt that "there was no place in any decision-making for women's talk and children likewise. My mother loved to talk and had no audience. And I had no audience. So we would just entertain ourselves. She did crosswords. There were very few words you could spring on her."
Wilder grew into a "self-styled philosopher" who liked to write down his thoughts and read Aristotle and Emerson. "I got sidetracked temporarily by Nietzsche. I used to go around the house reciting it, and my mother would say, 'Can't you find something else to read? That man's crazy.' "
Most of the world he now inhabits was totally off-limits in his youth. "Total segregation. Drinking fountains, restaurants, streetcars, buses. Never could understand it.
"The deprivation hits you harder when you don't have a (school) cafeteria or auditorium or library. We even had some outdoor toilets at the school I went to." Wilder's face goes expressionless. "I knew any number of classmates who, if they had had the slightest opportunity, could have gone on."
His first real relationship with whites was in high school. "During the summer I would run the elevator down here on Main Street. I met a couple of very good guys. They went to a different school, of course. But our thoughts were so much the same on so many subjects. And I knew then that if people had a chance to talk and meet there was hope."
Still, Wilder says, "I was a constantly boiling cauldron. I was fortunate to have had some degree of discipline." Otherwise, "I don't know what would have happened." The Burning Spear
While a senior at all-black Virginia Union University, Wilder flirted with the idea that revolution might be the only way to end segregation. "It was the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. Blacks had been so mistreated, and Kenyatta embarked on this theory of doing away with the oppressors. It fascinated me. In the Army I found some who felt the same way. We would write letters back and forth and sign them 'the Burning Spear.' "
Today, Wilder dismisses all that as "just romantic rhetoric. I had not seen the breakthroughs." The 1954 Brown versus Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court, which ruled segregated public schools unconstitutional changed him from an angry young man to one who saw hope within the system. "It did more than just deal with schools. Psychologically it cut the Gordian knot with the past. Nine white men could say unanimously that segregation was wrong; that separate but equal was not the law. They said it and meant it. It made me appreciate that what I thought was visionary and Captain Blood, all in one, well, there was absolutely no place for it. I remember pictures of blacks, standing in line in Washington, waiting for the decision to come down. How uplifted they were to know it wasn't hopeless!"
Wilder was among the first blacks to serve in a fully integrated Army and received the bronze star for valor in Korea. "Yet we had to fight for things. We weren't getting promotions. As a private, I led a group to see the colonel and tell him things weren't right. Once we got to the colonel he said, 'It'll be taken care of.' And it was. See, that was what convinced me that things could be done." On Porkchop Hill, he found "how easily the reason for prejudice disappears when you have to depend on each other to live. We were cut off. I had no idea the Chinese had half the hill. I thought we had it all. Next thing I knew," he says, making the quick motion and brrrrp of an automatic rifle, "the guy next to me was gone. The three of us left fell to the ground, thinking there were only two or three of them. We made them believe there was more, running in different directions and hollering. I threw a grenade and fired a volley but we still didn't know there were 19 of them. When they started coming out of the hootch, good God, it looked like they never stopped coming. If they had known there were only three of us I guarantee I wouldn't be here talking."
After the "utter humiliation" of being offered the cook's job, and his years in Korea, Wilder waited tables in Richmond until a friend got him a job as a lab specialist with the state health department. He then went on to Howard Law School and private practice and in 1969 won his Senate seat after the General Assembly reluctantly redistricted itself to permit Richmond's black voters a measure of power at last.
After some low-profile apprenticeship years Wilder began quietly but firmly to push black issues. "We had no black judges when I came to the legislature. Now we have black judges on every level. We upgraded housing, established a uniform building code." For nine years he tried to get Virginia to honor Martin Luther King Jr. with a state holiday. He finally won, in a typical Wilder maneuver, by tacking it onto an existing holiday honoring Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. He scoffs at those who criticize his compromise.
"My agenda has never been anything but inclusive," he says. "Life is the ability to learn that it be shared. The best lesson young people can learn is to take a position, occupy and then hold what you have captured. That's why it made no difference to me what else was observed on that day."
He also dismisses the Black Power players of yesterday. "The Huey Newtons, the Rap Browns, gave something of Emerson's self-reliance, but it was black reliance rather than self-reliance, and it didn't go far enough. I'm somebody because I'm black? That's silly. I'm somebody because I'm somebody! . . . That group . . . People they decried as totally obstructionist to the movement, like Martin Luther King, his memory will never fade away. Ask today and it's Eldridge who? Bobby what? They did some good but they destroyed many people in the process."
Today, Wilder says, as black politicians emerge, some activists still resent the compromises necessary to build lasting power. Randall Robinson, the TransAfrica lobbyist who also grew up in Richmond, however, praises Wilder as a complementary force. "We know his interest in the Free South Africa movement, and he knows my interest and support in what he's doing. The same methodologies don't work with equal success in all arenas."
Wilder, however, remains cool toward some civil rights spokesmen like Jesse Jackson. "I am not an activist," he says. "I would not have gone over to where Gorbachev was and confronted him. It would be political doom for me. But activists can do so and receive the plaudits of the press, if that's what you're looking for."
In 1984, he says, "I took the view that I was not supporting anybody." Robb, on the other hand, Wilder chortles, "He was for John Glenn!" Campaigning White
Smarting a little from stories that claimed Robb's influence was largely responsible for his success, Wilder and his campaign manager, Paul Goldman, have sniped a bit, emphasizing that Robb initially opposed Wilder's candidacy, and came to it late. This bothers many Democrats. "It's inappropriate and petty," said one. "Wilder is one of those who has an ability to grow; I hope he gets off that."
Says Wilder, "I drew the same number of whites percentagewise as Robb did. I'm so proud of that. Oh, I repeat it everywhere he is."
Symbolism is not lost on Wilder. In the state with the lowest percentage of blacks (17) of any southern state, he announced his candidacy in front of a picture of Harry Byrd and down-played race until "people never perceived a black candidate running." A statewide trek, backed up with television ads that included an archetypal white deputy sheriff endorsing Wilder, paid off. Wilder undid his tie and rolled up his sleeves in front of Confederate flags at country stores. Instant press, statewide and local, at every stop.
From a roadside phone Wilder called House Speaker A.L. Philpott and said he was coming into his area. "Some counties he was in have no black population at all," says Philpott. "Pretty redneck. I thought if he could sell himself to those people he could sell himself all over the state." Philpott hosted a breakfast for Wilder -- a turning point. Philpott, a longtime segregationist symbol of the past, was breaking bread with a symbol of the future. Of his own evolution, Philpott drawls, "You just go with the times." Negatives
Colleagues have remarkably similar comments about Wilder's pluses and minuses. He gets high marks for articulate intelligence, knowledge of the Senate and effective and persuasive personality. He is criticized for an ego that some think may trip him up ("He wants to be the top black; wants no rivals around," said one senator). Many say such things as "he is so facile that he doesn't develop his facts, doesn't have an eye for detail." Others see a get-even pettiness. A colleague and close friend says, "His positions might be shaped more by opponents on the other side than whether the issue is right or wrong." A longtime Republican politico says, "I'm not always sure he follows through unless he has something to gain personally."
There are those who say, "Had he been white he would have been governor long ago," and others who say, "He won because he had a mediocre opponent and the Republicans didn't know how to campaign against him."
Three personal problems surfaced but went nowhere in the campaign. One was a widely reported whispering campaign charging that his divorce contained allegations of spouse abuse. Wilder refuses to discuss it, noting the divorce records were sealed at his wife's request. The couple has three college-age children. A second problem was a judicial reprimand against Wilder for "inexcusable procrastination" in the handling of a traffic accident lawsuit. Wilder still disputes the finding. The third problem charged him with neglect and failure to disclose on state conflict-of-interest forms some $110,000 of his estimated $1 million in real estate. Wilder points out that the extent of his financial disclosure mirrored that of his General Assembly colleagues, who rarely detail their holdings.Even so, he filed an amended disclosure form.scrutiny was politically motivated and adds, "The whole election was cathartic. I had been held up to scrutiny and not found wanting." From Dream to Reality
Wilder brought with him from his Senate office two wall hangings with mottoes he lives by: "A dreamer lives forever" and Langston Hughes' "Hold fast to dreams for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly."
* The man who once believed "I never thought I'd see the time when you could sit together on a streetcar or bus" has seen a large part of a dream come true.
"Obviously you find one or two racists here and there. Our election didn't wipe out the vestiges nor did it create a metamorphosis, turning the moth into a butterfly forever. But the psyche has been broken: The idea that this cannot happen, will not happen."
It has happened, and now Wilder is asked if he will be a different lieutenant governor. His eyes twinkle. "I intend to work with the governor's legislative package. And I intend to have a package of my own." Does he, like past lieutanant governors, intend to use the position as a steppingstone?
Wilder leans back, twirls around in his chair and delivers a sentence as convoluted as it is coy, which ends with "I wouldn't want to be 'unique' in the office and turn my eyes away from whatever they should be looking at."
Standing in the capitol, surveying pictures of past lieutenant governors and, more importantly, governors, Wilder gesticulates in an elfin guessing game. Will he end up here? he asks, pointing to the portraits of past lieutenant governors, "ORRRRRRR", whirling around to where the governors' pictures hang, "there?"
The laugh echoes in the marbled corridors.