Lawrence Douglas Wilder (born 1931) was the first African American elected governor in the United States. He rose from waiting tables in the segregated country clubs of the Jim Crow South to become a powerful Virginia state legislator who broke the color line by winning statewide elections as lieutenant governor in 1985 and then as governor four years later.
Lawrence Douglas Wilder was born January 17, 1931, in Richmond, Virginia, the youngest of Robert and Beulah Wilder's ten children. Robert Wilder sold insurance for an African American-owned insurance company, making the Wilders middle-class for their day. Wilder remembered his childhood as "gentle poverty."
Starting at age 13, Wilder held a variety of jobs to earn money for college. For example, he worked as a shoeshine boy, elevator operator, and paper boy. In 1947 at age 16, Wilder entered Virginia Union University, where he studied chemistry. He also began waiting tables at the city's segregated hotels and country clubs where Virginia politicians often gathered. Unlike the other waiters, Wilder always stayed in the room to listen to the speeches.
After graduation in 1951 Wilder was drafted by the U.S. Army and sent to Korea, where he saw duty on the front lines. In Korea Wilder demonstrated his aptitude for politics, organizing a meeting of African American soldiers with their commanding officer to complain about a lack of promotions. The promotions were soon forthcoming; Wilder became a sergeant. He also won a Bronze Star for heroism when he and another man helped capture 19 Chinese prisoners on Pork Chop Hill.
After the war Wilder returned home to Richmond, working as a toxicologist in the state medical examiner's office. But Wilder soon concluded that his laboratory work was a dead-end job and he sought a new profession. In 1956, enthused by the opportunities opened by the Supreme Court's decision striking down segregation, he decided to go to law school. Because Virginia law schools still barred African Americans, he attended Howard University in Washington, D.C.
After graduation in 1959 Wilder began practicing law in Richmond. In 1969 one of Richmond's state senators ran for higher office. While that campaign was still in progress, the upstart Wilder, with the foresight and chutzpah that later became his trademarks, announced that he would run in the special election to fill a vacancy. Wilder's abrupt announcement preempted senior African American leaders who might have otherwise made the run. With two white candidates splitting the white vote, Wilder had an easy victory, becoming the first African American to serve in the Virginia Senate since Reconstruction.
Wilder immediately shocked conservative whites with what they considered his militance on racial matters. Wilder made headlines by stalking out of a reception where the state song, "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia," was played. He claimed its lyrics were racist and tried unsuccessfully to have the song repealed.
Wilder was considered a liberal in a decidedly conservative legislature, but because the 1970 redistricting gave Wilder a predominantly African American district, he faced no opposition for re-election. Wilder gradually gained seniority, and with it, committee chairmanships. In time, a newspaper poll ranked Wilder as the Senate's fifth most influential member. Wilder was easily the most prominent African American leader in Virginia.
In 1981 some African Americans were skeptical of Charles Robb, the Democratic candidate for governor. But Wilder was instrumental in organizing a large turn-out of African American voters that helped make Robb the state's first Democratic governor in 16 years. In return, Robb consulted Wilder on almost a daily basis about appointments.
However, Wilder objected to Robb's choice of conservative Owen Pickett as the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1982 and threatened to run as an independent. Thus, Pickett was forced to withdraw. Wilder's threat angered many Democrats, but it dramatized his growing political clout. In 1985 when Wilder sought the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, no one dared oppose him lest they alienate African American voters the party needed.
Nevertheless, most party officials were convinced Virginia wasn't ready for an African American candidate and feared that Wilder would drag the 1985 ticket down to defeat. Republicans were so confident of victory that they denied the nomination to their strongest candidate, who had angered conservatives, and instead nominated John Chichester, a littleknown state legislator more acceptable to the right wing.
Knowing he had to do something dramatic to win in a state that was only 19 percent African American, Wilder set out on a two-month tour of the state by stationwagon, vowing to stop in every town he passed through. This "back-roads tour" captured the citizens' imaginations and Wilder became an unlikely folk hero among white, rural Virginians. The tour also enabled Wilder to save money for a television blitz featuring a rural policeman with a distinct Southern drawl declaring his support for the African American candidate. The ads were a sensation that the lackluster Chichester was unable to match. A vote for Wilder became synonymous with a vote to distance Virginia from its racist past. Wilder won with 52 percent of the vote, becoming the first African American to win a statewide election in Virginia.
As lieutenant governor, Wilder feuded openly with Governor Gerald Baliles and former Governor Charles Robb, both fellow Democrats. But Wilder's constituency base made him invulnerable to attack. In 1989 Wilder faced only token opposition for the Democratic nomination for governor. Despite their differences, Wilder sought to portray himself as the logical heir to Robb and Baliles. He also tried to paint Republican Marshall Coleman as a rightwing extremist and used Coleman's opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest to dominate the campaign. Coleman was on the defensive for much of the campaign and blamed the news media for cheering on Wilder to make history. Nevertheless, the election was the closest in Virginia history, a development most political analysts attributed to some whites' reluctance to support an African American in the privacy of the voting booth. But a recount, the state's first in a statewide contest, upheld Wilder's 7,000-vote margin.
On January 11, 1990, Wilder was sworn in as the first African American elected governor in the United States. As governor, he astonished friends and foes alike. He distressed allies by purging state boards of many Robb and Baliles appointees. Yet the Wilder administration saw no major increase in the number of Black appointees; most of his key advisers were whites who were personally loyal to him.
But Wilder surprised opponents by stressing fiscal conservatism. He insisted on a surplus in the state budget. He won a modest tax cut. He ordered state colleges to reduce proposed tuition increases. Then, as soon as the legislature adjourned, Wilder set out on a nationwide speaking tour to tell Democrats that the way to win the White House in 1992 was to follow his example. He suggested they practice "fiscal discipline" and free themselves from "special interests."
He also took swipes at the party's leading liberals, specifically Jesse Jackson and Mario Cuomo, by suggesting that he was part of a "New Mainstream" of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism while they were not. Many commentators predicted Wilder would be a likely candidate for vice-president in 1992; others saw Wilder positioning himself as a moderate alternative to Jackson. In the fall of 1991 Wilder began campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president.
Some African Americans were upset with Wilder for his attacks on Jackson. They also complained that Wilder refused to pay enough attention to African American concerns. For instance, Wilder came out against proposals to create an African American-majority congressional district in Virginia after the 1990 census. Wilder declared that his election proved African Americans did not need special treatment to win office. Stung by the criticism, however, Wilder looked for a dramatic way to respond. In May 1990 Wilder ordered state agencies and universities to divest themselves of investments with ties to South Africa, the first Southern state to take such an action. And despite Virginia's economic problems in the national recession, Wilder held to his pledge of not increasing taxes.
In January of 1992 Wilder wirthdrew his presidential candidacy. He pointed to the deteriorating fiscal state of Virginia, claiming that governing the commonwealth and conducting a presidential campaign at the same time allowed him to do neither job full justice.
After finishing his term as governor in 1994, Wilder began a two-hour weekday radio show, The Douglas Wilder Show, which lasted only months before it was canceled.
At a news conference Wilder announced he would hang up his hat. "I will not run for another elected office and I almost rule out serving in any governmental capacity," he said.
Further Reading on Lawrence Douglas Wilder
Three books have been written about Wilder: When Hell Froze Over (1988, updated 1990), by Roanoke Times & World-News reporter Dwayne Yancey, details Wilder's political career, with special emphasis on his breakthrough campaign for lieutenant governor. Wilder: Hold Fast to Dreams (1989), by Washington Post reporter Don Baker, is a biography that follows Wilder through his nomination for governor. Claiming the Dream (1990), by Norfolk Virginian-Pilot reporter Margaret Edds, is an account of Wilder's campaign for governor.