To be adequately measured, a nation’s progress should never narrowly confine itself to the successes of a select few. This profound lesson, imparted by L. Douglas Wilder, was one of many ideas he shared with Old Dominion University students, faculty and academic leaders his Keynote Address given on Monday Feb. 17 for the university’s month-long celebration of Black History.
Held in North Café of Webb University Center, the lecture was one of the many enriching events organized by ODU’s Office of Intercultural Relations (OIR) in celebration of Black History.
President John R. Broderick welcomed Wilder, former lieutenant governor of Virginia, to deliver a speech in which Wilder shared his memories of the days when Virginia thought he “didn’t stand a chance.”
Wilder made his mark on history in Richmond in 1969, when he became the first African-American to ascend to the position of Senator since Reconstruction.
His future success as Virginia’s lieutenant governor in 1985 was a sign that the Commonwealth was ready for black leadership. Four years later he was elected as the state’s sixty-sixth governor. During his tenure he fought to mitigate crime and institute gun-control laws.
Recognized nationally today for his pioneering management of the state, Wilder reveals that the fight for equality hasn’t reached its finale.
Despite the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, viewed nationally as a sincere widening of the path to true equality, Wilder warned ODU of the dangers that lie in prematurely declaring victory for blacks in America.
“Progress cannot be decided by the success of one man. That evidence is too easy, too lazy, and allows us to let down our guard” he said.
“Eternal vigilance is the price we pay for freedom. Are events of the past enough to say that we have arrived,” Wilder asked
His response to this question? An empathic no.
Wilder said that society’s amnesia has grown since events like the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865, hailed as the “ringing of the bell” for African-American freedom. He believes that the passion, hunger and motivation to genuinely help mankind, that once drove cogs of change for more than 50 years of civil rights movements, has been undermined by the black community’s current state of satisfaction.
Wilder, the grandson of slaves, is fully aware of the sacrifices his ancestors made for the paths that were paved for him. He encouraged members of the audience to reconsider the value they place on higher education, seeing knowledge as a direct link to economic power.
“Smart people make the money,” he said. “And you can’t tell me there isn’t one element of politics that isn’t guided by money. Follow the dollar.”
Wilder said that younger generations must be inspired toward the “want to know” curiosity about education.
“We must dig the wells that our father’s dug.”
Wilder concluded his address with a brief Q&A session. One of the most interesting questions was asked by a student who wanted to know if ALL politics are corrupt.
“If all politicians were corrupt, do you think I’d be here,” Wilder said.
Wilder’s personal journey of triumph in the face of structured racism is a message to ODU’s students and faculty that struggle is never permanent, yet success is gradual. It is up to young black leaders to carry the torch of their ancestors all the way to White House.
His final message to the crowd was a vivid illustration of the challenge facing all earnest citizens. Rather than just staying on the contemplative side of complaint without risk of involvement, begging for a “piece of the pie”, citizens should be asking how to “hold the knife” that cuts. It is what Wilder has done his entire political career: taken control of his destiny.
By David A. Baah