Roger Wilkins Calls Civil Rights Struggle the "Moral Heart of This Country" as National Symposium Continues

Roger Wilkins Calls Civil Rights Struggle the "Moral Heart of This Country" as National Symposium Continues

April 11, 2003

April 11, 2003, Greencastle, Ind. - Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "The Secular Light" 199KB] "Despite the fact that I believe that hubris is our most dangerous affliction right now, I continue to believe that the institutions and the values and the practices of democracy in this country are the secular light of the world," said civil rights leader Roger Wilkins as he spoke this afternoon at the national symposium, "Political Education and the Modern University", at DePauw University. Wilkins, the Clarence J. Robinson Professor of History and American Culture at George Mason University, spoke on "The Civic Education of a Black American in a Great Big World".

Video Link [DOWNLOAD VIDEO: "Designed to Disable" 367KB] "Segregation, and all of the the things that were done to black people before that, were designed to disable them," Wilkins told the crowd that filled the Student Social Center at the Walden Inn. "Segregation was done to preserve white economic, cultural and psychic privilege. But it was also to convince blacks that we were inferior and that essentially we didn't belong here and that the fruits of citizenship were beyond our reach and our capacities," added Wilkins, who grew up in segregated Kansas City dreaming as a young boy of becoming a train engineer, only to be told by his father that "only white people can get that job."

An assistant attorney general in the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, Wilkins said that over the years, Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "Moral Heart" 45KB] "My understanding of the struggle has deepened, and I may be wrong, but I think it's the moral heart of this country." He spoke of the current controversy over Hootie Johnson, chairman of the private Augusta National Golf Club, which refuses to allow female members and is the scene of protests during this week's Masters golf tournament. Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "Hootie's Constitution" 329KB] "Hootie Johnson says 'It's my constitutional right to associate freely with the people I want to associate with.' But Hootie's a powerful old guy, you don't have to worry about Hootie's constitutional rights, he's gonna do just fine in this country. Where the constitution really counts is how it works for the despised, the outcasts, the people for whom many people have comptempt: the feared, the hated ... That's when you ask yourself, 'What kind of country you have?,' and an answer comes back, 'From the way your country has responded,' just as Doestoevsky looked at the prisons of old Russia and said, 'This is how you judge a country.'"

Wilkins continued, Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "The Constitution" 334KB] "How the Constitution and American values have dealt with the issue of black people in America is, in my view, an incredible story. It's a 384-year arc from the first black people who were brought here in shackles to Jamestown in 1619, to now. And it has produced this struggle -- freedom and equality for some black people, but leaving enormous and heartbreaking work still to be done."

Citing statistics that show 40% of black children are living in poverty and 12% of all black males are incarcerated, Wilkins suggested Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "Right and Wrong" 85KB] "these facts suggest that there is still something terribly wrong in our country. But there's also something incredibly right here." Wilkins, who shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for his Watergate coverage with Woodward, Bernstein and Herblock, is past chairman of the Pulitzer Prize board, and is the author of several books, including Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism, noted, Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "Not the Same" 312KB] "This isn't the country that Washington and Adams and Jefferson, Madison (and) Mason founded. It's not the country that Lincoln became president of or that existed when he was killed. It's not the country that Teddy Roosevelt took over. It's not even the country that I was born into. It is so much better. And it's largely because of the civic idealism and the structure of national ideals, some of which are in our legal materials."

Wilkins credits American blacks and their white allies for working to bring the words of the Constitution and Bill of Rights alive, clearing the way for racial equality in this country. Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "Glory" 269KB] "All of that ideological and cultural and legal infrastructure brought these extraordinary changes in opposition to the weight, the central weight, of the main culture of this country. And that we were able to make these changes as citizens, on the strengths of our ideals, in my view is a glory ... a glory to the world. And it's a story that no other country can tell."

As a professor, Roger Wilkins says the story of the struggle for civil rights has great educational and moral value for people of all backgrounds. When he returned to education from his career as a journalist and civil rights activist, Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "Important Lessons" 291KB] "What I brought was a knowledge that I had in fact helped to change America for the better. And that struggle had given me, as a human being, purpose, scope and efficacy, and a certain knowledge that active citizenship could affect the nation in the way that it was intended by the fathers to affect it."

Wilkins closed his address by saying, Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "Current Events" 574KB] "As a citizen whose heart is heavy about the course this nation is embarking upon, I'll have to tell you that I'm energized and profoundly engaged in the dissenting debate about how we frame this moment in our historical minds and about how we pick up the pieces after this war is over and how we restore the international system on which we must rely as a civilized world as we go about continuing to civilize ourselves. And I look forward to that struggle. And I am glad that in my 8th decade of life as an American citizen I have the energy, both physical and intellectual, to participate in the struggle, because I think that participation is the essence of being an American. And I delight in it, and I delight in my ability to pass those lessons of my exuberant citizenship on to my students. It is the true light of the final years of my rich life as an American citizen."

The symposium, “Political Education and the Modern University", which is supported by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, continues through Saturday. For a complete schedule of events, click here.