Wilder: Lawyer

Program Information

Program: Wilder: An American First
Segment Number: 3 (Watch entire program)
Duration: 00:03:46
Year Produced: 2005
Description:

In 1954 Virginia and its tradition of segregation were thrown into upheaval, The Supreme Court ruled in Brown versus the Topeka Board of Education that "separate but equal" was unconstitutional and ordered the integration of the nation's schools. Energized by the ruling, Wilder made up his mind to attend law school in Washington, D.C.

When the nation's first elected African-American governor took the oath of office in 1990, American history came full circle. The newly elected governor was L. Douglas Wilder, a grandson of slaves. The state that elected him was Virginia, former home to the capital of the Confederacy. The thrill of this irony swept across the country as proof to all Americans that indeed, we shall overcome.

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Transcript

NARRATOR
In 1954 Virginia and its tradition of segregation were thrown into upheaval, The Supreme Court ruled in Brown versus the Topeka Board of Education that "separate but equal" was unconstitutional and ordered the integration of the nation's schools. Energized by the ruling, Wilder made up his mind to attend law school in Washington, D.C.

MARY FRANCIS BERRY
And Howard University of course at the time Doug Wilder went to law school there, was a place that had been the cradle of the Brown decision with the lawyers there at the law school, and so he was part of all that ferment and was there in that particular place and I’m sure that it had great influence on his experience at that time

NARRATOR
Wilder graduated and was the only African American in Virginia to pass the state bar exam in 1959. He headed back home to Richmond but did not arrive alone. Wilder had married Eunice Montgomery the previous year and they soon celebrated the birth of their first child, a daughter they named Lynn. Rather than sign on to work with one of Richmond's respected black attorneys, Wilder hung out his own shingle on an office over Ike's Shrimp House in Churchill.

DON BAKER
It didn’t take long though, for him to start attracting his own clients. And he pretty much had a criminal practice, because, as he said, a lot of the people who lived on Church Hill were being arrested, sometimes for crimes that they did not commit. And, as the reputation got around Church Hill that Doug Wilder, a local boy, would be a good person to call when you’re in trouble, his list of clients expanded.

NARRATOR
While Wilder's career as a black attorney was taking off during the late 1950's and 1960's so was the Civil Rights Movement. Black America began to demand that their voices be heard and that their votes be counted. As demonstrators were beaten by police and cities were set afire, Doug Wilder became the NAACP agent for Richmond continued to concentrate on his law practice.

MARGARET EDDS
I really don’t think Civil Rights has been a great motivating force in his life. I mean I think Personal achievement is a motivating force, I think he appreciates the finer things of life and has wanted to be able to have a life that is built around those. He preaches hard work and pulling yourself up from the bootstraps and all those things and he is certainly interested in the advancement of African Americans but it’s not like the civil rights movement was a central part of his history or his coming of age in Richmond or his building a law firm here

GERALD FOSTER
If we go back and look at what was happening in the 1960’s, particularly the mid and latter part of the1960’s, we were in the ending phase of what was then called the Martin civil rights movement. And Doug Wilder has never been a person to promote symbolism. And the dichotomy was symbolism versus substance.

DON BAKER
He was more comfortable in the courts as a lawyer than he was carrying a banner and marching in the streets.