WCU MLK speaker discusses race and politics in U.S.

L. Douglas Wilder, the first African-American elected governor in the United States, told a group of Western Carolina University students, faculty and staff on Wednesday, Jan. 20 that there is still progress to be made in terms of race relations, despite the historic election of Barack Obama as president in 2008.

Recent controversy over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s comments that a light-skinned, articulate black was more palatable to white American voters provides evidence that America has not advanced as far as many may think, Wilder said.

In a talk titled “The Movement: Past, Present and Future” that was part of WCU’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration week activities, he spoke about the irony of Reid’s comments coming 20 years after Wilder’s own election as governor of Virginia – a state that once was the seat of the Confederate South.

“That election in 1989 seemed to signify that voters were ready to judge candidates not by the color of the skin, but by the content of their character,” Wilder said, borrowing a phrase from King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. “Here today, Reid is saying that, 20 years later, we really haven’t crossed that threshold.”

Although Reid has since apologized to Obama for private remarks that were made public in the new book “Game Change” about the 2008 presidential election, he still needs to apologize to the rest of the country, Wilder said, calling the embattled politician’s statements among “the most dreadful comments in American political history” and “a slap in the face of the American people.”

Wilder reminded the audience that, throughout American history, progress typically has not been made through big, permanent changes. “It’s about small, consistent steps forward achieving that dream,” he said.

Wilder urged attendees to become aware of the false hopes and false steps that can derail efforts to strive for the American dream. “Don’t ignore your problems, hoping they’ll just go away,” he said. “Don’t think that if you just be patient and wait your turn, you’ll eventually get your time at the front of the line. And don’t think that only insiders know what’s best.” 

He also warned against the impact of an increase in selfishness, violence and acceptance of mediocrity on the ability of today’s young people to continue to make progress. “What we need to do next is to not stop dreaming,” he said. “Barack Obama’s election has elicited the need for new dreams.”

Too many people today are quick to blame their problems on others, he said, telling the crowd that his mother constantly reminded him that he could do anything he set his mind to, and that his teachers never complained about a lack of resources.

The WCU event was sponsored by the Office of the Chancellor, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and the Martin Luther King Jr. planning committee.