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Wilder Shares Thoughts on Achieving True Equality in Black History Month Address

The Honorable L. Douglas WilderDouglas Wilder

While he takes tremendous pride in being the first African American elected governor in United States history, Douglas Wilder was even prouder when the country's second African American elected governor, Deval Patrick, took office as chief executive of Massachusetts in 2007.

"One person elected is fine. The second might become a trend," the former Virginia governor said, in an address at Old Dominion University on Monday, Feb. 17.

Wilder, who was elected governor of Virginia in 1989, delivered the keynote address for Black History Month at ODU. His message to the audience of community and school leaders, faculty, staff and students was that the struggle for true equality is far from over.

Noting that the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008 was hailed as a measure of true equality, reaching from coast to coast in the United States, Wilder added that it's dangerous to infer that the hard work is done because of the successes of a few individuals.

"To decide the struggle for equality is over because of a few individuals' success is too easy, too lazy and leaves too many people behind," he said. "I challenge citizens to take a broader view - Where are we as a country? - before we make that judgment."

Society's responsibility extends to African Americans taking control of their own destiny, Wilder affirmed. He said lessons learned during the civil rights struggles of 50 years ago are not being applied today.

"Most of the things that have been done for us have been forgotten by us," said Wilder, the grandson of slaves. "After Brown v. Board of Education (the landmark Supreme Court decision that desegregated schools), it was always understood that we would go to school and we would stay in school until we succeeded. Dropping out? That's not living up to those ideals of freedom."

Wilder shared with the audience a worrisome statistic. He said literacy rates among African Americans are lower now than they were in 1880, 15 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

"Think about that for a moment," Wilder said. "We're further behind now than we were then, as a nation."

To inspire the next generation, Wilder said it's up to parents to take an interest in their children's education, to read to them, to help foster a sense of curiosity. "We must let them know they have to measure up."

Rather than fighting over their "fair share" of the pie, Wilder said it's up to African Americans, or any other historically disadvantaged group, to take control of their own destiny.

"Rather than begging for a larger slice of the pie, people should be asking, 'Where's the knife?'"

Wilder's personal journey is one illustration of the struggle for civil rights by minorities in the United States. When chosen as state senator in Virginia in 1969, he became the first African American elected to that body since the end of Reconstruction.

By the time he began his 1985 campaign for lieutenant governor, Wilder was among the most powerful legislators in the state. He won the election, despite many pundits predicting that Virginia was not ready to elect a black statewide official, making him the highest-elected African American official in the country at that time.

Four years later, Wilder again defied the odds when he was elected as the state's 66th governor. During his tenure, Virginia was twice recognized as the best-managed state in the country.

Events continue throughout the month of February at ODU to recognize Black History Month. For more information or a schedule of events, visit http://www.odu.edu/oir or contact ODU's Office of Intercultural Relations at: oir@odu.edu or 683-4406.