- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 18, 2009

RICHMOND | Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder shared his front-row perspective on history Friday during a conference marking the demise of state-sanctioned school segregation in Virginia.

He told of rubbing shoulders with civil rights giants, such as Thurgood Marshall and Oliver W. Hill, and how the era inspired not only his pioneering political career but a whole generation of young black men and women.

“As I’ve said on so many occasions, I would never have been a lawyer but for Brown v. Board of Education,” Mr. Wilder said of the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision ending school segregation. “Brown sent me to law school.”

Later, Mr. Wilder said, he was awestruck as he worked with Mr. Marshall, Mr. Hill and Spottswood Robinson, another civil rights lawyer, leading the fight to end Virginia’s stubborn defiance of the decision.

The grandson of slaves, Mr. Wilder left a state job as a chemist, went to law school and embarked on a political path that ultimately led to his election in 1989 as the nation’s first black governor since Reconstruction.

Mr. Wilder, 78, spoke at a Capitol conference sponsored by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. The daylong event brought together political leaders, clergy and former students, now in their 60s, who were faced with locked school buildings when they tried to attend all-white schools. In Virginia, political leaders called their movement to preserve segregated schools “Massive Resistance.”

Mr. Wilder said that era left a terrible legacy.

“Massive Resistance may have legally ended in 1959, but the lingering effects of decades of justifying segregation continues,” he said in his characteristic cadence, which involves high-pitched tones for emphasis.

The victims, he said, also included white students whose parents could not afford private or religious schools when public classrooms were shuttered by the threat of integration.

“It’s necessary to look at the total picture or the entirety of the massive effort of denial of rights and to know all of the ramifications,” Mr. Wilder said. “The revisionists or the apologists fail to fully mention the full effect of the closing of public schools in Virginia.”

The official end of school segregation did not mean equal educational opportunities, either, he said.

Mr. Wilder, who attended public schools in Richmond, said some primarily black schools lacked indoor plumbing and had to settle for hand-me-down supplies from majority white schools.

“What and how do you measure the effects of that?” he asked.

Black students, he added, were blessed by committed teachers who “challenged us to be the best in society, and they accepted no excuses.”

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