An article yesterday on the legacy of former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder incorrectly said the U.S. Senate is all-white. Although there are no African Americans in the Senate, several senators are members of racial minority groups. (Published 01/18/2000)
Old men born into segregation leaned on canes. Parents hoisted bundled-up children onto shoulders. Teenagers clambered up trees to catch a glimpse of their new hero, L. Douglas Wilder, a son of Virginia and a grandson of slaves, as he raised his right hand, spoke a brief oath and became the nation's first elected African American governor.
Many that day, including Wilder, said that if an African American could be elected governor of Virginia--where just a generation earlier public schools had closed rather than admit black students--then it could happen anywhere.
A decade later, it hasn't. Not in Virginia, not anywhere. That fact stirs elements of disappointment and challenge into the heady mix of celebration and nostalgia surrounding the 10th anniversary of Wilder's inauguration this month.
"The door must be kept ajar," Wilder said. "Doors don't open by themselves, and when a door is opened, eventually it's going to close."
Today, black politicians still inspired by Wilder's achievement are knocking on that door like never before. Many are, like Wilder, more conservative and managerial than the civil rights generation of the 1950s and '60s.
To many, Wilder showed that blacks could find ways to break through in big elections, including elections at the state level, where the majority of voters were white.
"His election told me . . . that regardless of your background and the color of your skin, that if you can commit yourself to excellence and not drown in self-pity, that things once considered unimaginable are still possible," said Del. Paul C. Harris, a black Republican lawmaker from the Charlottesville area who is contemplating a run for lieutenant governor in 2001.
Nearly 9,000 African Americans hold elected office today, a 20 percent increase since Wilder became governor, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based think tank on racial issues. The number of black members of Congress has increased from 24 to 39 over that period, and more than 587 black politicians hold state legislative seats, a nearly 40 percent increase.
Though today there are no black governors or U.S. senators, black politicians with strong fiscal backgrounds in both New York and Oregon are preparing to run for governor. Colorado has a black lieutenant governor, and Georgia has a black attorney general.
"You've got to, as early as possible, show you're a candidate who's representative of a diverse population," said H. Carl McCall (D), the New York comptroller who two weeks ago announced an exploratory committee for a possible run for governor in 2002. The former banking executive said he helped break the label of a "black candidate" by representing a mixed-race district in upper Manhattan in the state Senate.
Oregon's Jim Hill, the state treasurer who plans to run for governor in 2002, will campaign in a state with a tiny black electorate. He grew up in segregated Atlanta and, like many black politicians, started believing he could win statewide office when Wilder was elected.
"I think the dream is coming into reality," Hill said. "As bad as things have been at times, and as bad as they still are, I think there has been a great deal of progress."
In Washington's suburbs, majority-black Prince George's County elected Wayne K. Curry (D) as the region's first African American county executive, while in Montgomery, County Council member Isiah Leggett (D-At Large) has become one of the county's most popular politicians despite a black population of only 12 percent. In Virginia, black state delegates are contemplating runs for attorney general as well as lieutenant governor.
Alvin Thornton, a Howard University political scientist, calls successful black politicians such as Curry and D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) "the children of Wilder" for emphasizing good government over race.
"Wilder suggested what the future would be like, especially in Montgomery and places where minorities are a small percentage of the population," said Leggett, who integrated the Montgomery council in 1986 and attended Wilder's inauguration four years later.
Many aspiring black politicians have been focusing on lowering taxes, fighting crime and other broad messages. And like Wilder, they play down race and racial issues.
In Leggett's first election, he did not use his picture on campaign literature so he could appeal to voters first on the issues. By the time many voters met him, they were surprised that the candidate talking about government accountability, fiscal restraint and education was black.
But Leggett admits that adopting an agenda that emphasizes issues other than civil rights does not always come naturally to black candidates, many of whom come from a long political tradition of evangelical oratory rooted in large themes of freedom and struggle.
"The first time I ran, they would say: 'This guy's talking about taxes, budgets. He isn't saying a thing about civil rights,' " Leggett said. "There's a coldness to it. . . . You have to be patient and stick with this."
Curry also would study such lessons and apply them in his successful 1994 run for county executive. He has governed much the same way.
His background is as a lawyer in one of the most prestigious law firms in Prince George's, and among his administration's most lasting achievements will be settling a federal desegregation lawsuit, attracting commercial projects, including National Harbor and a new Redskins football stadium, and building schools.
"There was a vernacular and a pattern and a trend that we all grew up on," Curry said. "Yet we are the first post-civil rights generation, in a position to capitalize on those efforts--and our symbols are changing."
Despite the increase in representation at many levels, some African American leaders and political scientists see a record of setbacks and unrealized opportunities that suggests to them that black politicians have failed to learn the lessons of Wilder's victory and that racism still helps guide the nation's electorate.
The U.S. Senate is all white again after one term by Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.). A generation earlier, Edward Brooke (R-Mass.) became the first elected black U.S. senator but lost after two terms. Two black candidates won the Democratic nomination for governor in Louisiana in the 1990s but lost the general election.
Northern Virginia's delegation to the General Assembly is all white. Former Baltimore mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D) contemplated a run for governor in 1994 but found support slim. The majority-black cities of Baltimore and Richmond have returned to having white mayors.
In Baltimore, key black political leaders including House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore) endorsed white City Council member Martin O'Malley's candidacy over those of two black rivals. But even so, a post-election review of voting patterns showed that 70 percent of black voters cast ballots for a black candidate in the Democratic primary while 90 percent of white voters supported O'Malley.
"There are still persistent and obstinate patterns of racial voting that befuddle advances like" Wilder's, Curry said. "We have a lot of racial lines to break down."
Many had felt those racial lines weakening as Wilder was sworn in. And for a jubilant black America, that inauguration was the place to be. The guest list included Jesse L. Jackson and Muhammad Ali. Duke Ellington's son brought his band to town. An African American singer from the Metropolitan Opera belted out the "Battle Hymn of the Republic"--a Union song from the Civil War--in a Richmond church whose congregation once included Confederate heroes Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.
"It was a very heady moment," recalled Del. Jerrauld C. Jones (D-Norfolk), leader of the Virginia legislature's black caucus. And he hopes to see Wilder's achievement duplicated soon: "The ultimate fulfillment of the legacy will be the election of another."
Wilder's legacy may shine brightest in the minds of black politicians in Virginia, where slavery made landfall in the colonies in 1619. Although one in five Virginians is black, African Americans vote less frequently than whites and hold fewer leadership positions in Richmond than their counterparts in Annapolis.
In 2001, Harris, the General Assembly's only black Republican, may run for lieutenant governor, and Del. A. Donald McEachin, a Richmond area Democrat, may run to become Virginia's first black attorney general.
"I don't know the obstacles he [Wilder] had to face, the kind of pessimism and cynicism he had to overcome, but I'm not facing that. Nobody's asking me if I can win," McEachin said. "I think that's Governor Wilder's legacy."
Wilder, who turns 69 today, longs to be more involved in helping to fulfill his own legacy. Like all Virginia governors, he could not seek a second consecutive four-year term. Runs for president in 1992 and the U.S. Senate in 1994 fizzled.
He now serves on several boards of directors, teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, has a weekly radio show and writes regularly for Op-Ed pages.
But he is disappointed, he said, that for all the many people who call him for advice, only a small fraction are black.
For those African American politicians who do call, he offers this advice: "Do your homework. Understand that there might be a double standard. Just be prepared to deal with it. And don't complain about it. Is it fair? No. But life isn't fair."
CAPTION: Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder shows student Courtney Jones photos of his career displayed in the Virginia Union University library that bears his name.