January 19, 2009

TOM PUTNAM:  Good afternoon.  I am Tom Putnam, the Director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and on behalf of John Shattuck, CEO of the Kennedy Library Foundation, and all my colleagues, I thank you for coming to this forum to help us continue to mark this historic week in our nation’s history. Before we begin, let me acknowledge the underwriters of the Kennedy Library Forums including lead sponsor Bank of America, along with Boston Capital, the Lowell Institute, the Corcoran Jennison Companies, the Boston Foundation, and our media sponsors the Boston Globe, WBUR, and NECN. 

In preparing this introduction I realized that the last time both of our guest speakers were here the candidacy of Barack Obama was in the air.  Let’s first watch the following clip from an October 20, 2006 forum before Senator Obama had announced his intention to run for our nation’s highest office.


Being the journalist that he is, Bob Herbert tried to get Mr. Obama to announce his intentions that day.  A little less than a year later Gwen Ifill participated in a wonderful forum with Charlayne Hunter Gault – about 6 months before the Iowa caucuses – when the biggest question in the air was whether or not Obama could shake Hillary Clinton’s mantle of inevitability.

We are honored to have Roger Wilkins with us today to reflect on this unique moment in our country’s history based on his life experience as a civil rights activist, award winning columnist, and observer of our nation’s past and principles.  Mr. Wilkins was born in the Phyllis Wheately hospital in Kansas City where he began his education in a one-room segregated school house.  He once told his father of his boyhood dream to become a train engineer.  When his father explained that “only white people can get that job,”  Roger was incredulous.  “What!  But that is unfair.”  “That’s right,” his father said.  “It is not fair and you must fight against that all of your life.    Roger promised him he would. As you can see from the biographical information in your program, he has lived up to that promise.  

Describing his career as “blasting through doors that white people didn’t want to open,” Roger Wilkins worked as a young man in the Kennedy administration for the U.S. Agency for International Development writing impatient memos to JFK urging him to live up to his campaign rhetoric on civil rights.  During the Johnson years he served as assistant attorney general where he was called “the conscience of the Department of Justice” and, amongst other roles, was sent out to help quell the riots that were erupting in cities like Detroit.  

He remembers during the early 1960’s of being moved by Martin Luther King’s marches where he witnessed “the glorious dignity and courage of the poor people who followed King in a simple but extraordinarily dangerous quest for the amenities that any human being ought to enjoy.”  Initially, he hoped that change would come through his and other’s attempts to enlighten our country’s leaders.  Over time, he writes colorfully, he realized that groin fights were the best means to progress.

After leaving the federal government, Mr. Wilkins became an editorial writer for the Washington Post (where he shared in a Pulitzer Prize for the Post’s Watergate coverage) and the New York Times.  His words continued to have an impact in the halls of the White House.  He once received a phone call from President Reagan himself complaining about a column Mr. Wilkins had written about the effect of Reaganomics on African Americans and others living in poverty.  After re-reading the column, he writes:  “If I were he, I would have complained too,” but that did not change Mr. Wilkins’s views of the President or the effects of his policies on the poor and minorities.  During the phone call, he remained polite but stood his ground.

At the pinnacle of his own access to power he writes of driving out to Anacostia one evening after attending a reception at the Supreme Court and arriving at a neighborhood that he describes as looking like a Black township in South Africa where impoverished barefoot children were playing along the roadside.   As he and his wife turned the corner, they were offered a breathtaking view of our nation’s capitol where they had just been socializing with Supreme Court justices and their wives.  Though this was where he worked and moved easily with the men and women of power, he understood that for the children playing in the street it was an utterly foreign world that seemed a thousand miles away.

We are all painfully aware that those types of neighborhoods continue to exist if not grow throughout our nation – and one question before us is whether the presidential election of a man who once worked in such communities will bring more opportunity to them and what the effect will be on those children who live there knowing that someone who shares part of their life experiences has been elected to our nation’s highest office.  As a former teacher, I’m aware that there is no better source for those children to understand the history of the civil rights movement that helped bring us to this moment than to watch the epic documentary Eyes on the Prize – portions of which were produced by this afternoon’s moderator, Callie Crossley.  

Many of us do not plan any weekend activities until after 7:30 on Friday nights so as to be sure to catch Ms. Crossley’s analysis of the week’s news on Greater Boston’s Beat the Press.  She is also a former producer for ABC News, is a program manager for the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, and a frequent participant in Kennedy Library Forums for which we are especially grateful.

In reading Roger Wilkins two books, I was reminded of President Kennedy’s selfdescription of being “an idealist without illusions.”  Mr. Wilkins concludes Jefferson’s Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism stating, “I still believe in the power of citizen action harnessed to our founding ideals to improve American life and even transform some American hearts.  I have seen the process work.”

Though his memoir, A Man’s Life, closes more cautiously:  “The most valuable thing that I can give my Black children are the stories of my own broken illusions and my continuing strength from the struggle.  For the struggle of life is not won with one glorious moment but a continual struggle in which you keep your dignity intact and your powers at work over the long course of a lifetime.”

Ladies and Gentlemen: please join me in welcoming to the Kennedy Library Callie Crossley and Roger Wilkins.  [applause]

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  Good afternoon. And thanks to all of you for coming out. I thought you’d all have tickets and be in Washington, D.C. But no, I see not. Okay. So we’re happy that you’re here to join us for this great conversation with Roger Wilkins. 

This, however, is also, as we know, the 80th birthday, or would have been the 80th birthday, for Martin Luther King, Jr. And on this occasion, the national scene for his birthday is really one of service. And so as we stand on the precipice of watching a really breathtaking historic occasion occur, the Inauguration of the 44th President of The United States of America, one Barack Obama and the first African-American.  [applause]  We’ll be watching him become the best-known and most powerful public servant in the world. 

So I think it’s appropriate to begin our conversation with Mr. Wilkins. But I wanted to just share with you this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. about service. He says, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics and physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.” So that’s Martin Luther King’s own words about service. I think it’s important as we celebrate his birthday, remembering that service is key. 

And what a wonderful public servant we have here. Your whole life has been about public service and about race relations in this country. And I thought my first question to you would be off the top of the news. The Washington Post today has a story about a new poll which says that just over a quarter of all Americans see racism as no longer as big a problem as compared to almost half of those who said it was twelve years ago.  But the same poll indicated that at the local level, people see little change, really, in the amount of racism. So I wondered what your insight would be about the drop in the numbers of people who see it as a global thing overall, but on the local level, people are still seeing racism in their daily lives. What’s your insight about these numbers? 

ROGER WILKINS:  It seems to me that people have taken Obama’s victory as an indication that, as some people put it, we’ve now entered a post-racial place in our society. I don't think the United States is going to be post-racial for another half a century. It’s too deep in the culture.  But the country is much more decent than I would have expected. The Obama campaign enabled millions of white people, who had really been unhappy with race relations in the United States but didn’t know how to plug in to do anything about it. And I have been greeted by so many white friends or new white acquaintances since this election’s been over, and they greet me with a warmth that I didn’t understand at first.  But it is a warmth that says, “I never knew how to say it, but now we’re being it. And we really are much closer together than we ever thought we would be.” And that’s wonderful. And I love it. 

I asked my next door neighbor, a woman about my age in her late 70s, and I said -- she’s white, grew up in the eastern shore of Maryland which was very racist -- I said, “Why have you worked so hard in this, day and night, night and day? Why’d you do it?” And she looked at me and she said, “Roger, I wanted to be proud of my country.” So there’s a lot of that.

What there isn’t a lot of is a desire, a political desire in this country to do something about the kind of poverty that … When you get to poor black people and the neighborhoods they live in and the non-services that they don’t get, when you see the bad teachers all being sent to those schools, and you see the unemployment rate in those neighborhoods, you really understand that the movements that the Kennedys and Johnson and Martin and A. Philip Randolph and my uncle, Roy, and Thurgood all were involved in, you see that doesn’t reach into those neighborhoods.  And yet that is a mark to me of a lot of racism that still exists. So until we get that, I will say and believe that racism is still a very strong current in American culture. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  Now, how do you respond to people who say, “Oh my god, I mean, what do we have to do to show that we’ve turned a big corner and this is huge? We really couldn’t have been here unless we must have taken some psychic leap toward a different space?” And yet you’re still saying something else is there. 

ROGER WILKINS:  Oh, I would say there has been a great psychic leap that’s astonished most of us. I mean, somebody asked me several years ago after Obama had made his wonderful speech at the Kerry convention, and then he was elected to the Senate, and then about two months after he was in the Senate, a woman asked me, “Well, what do you think of Barack Obama for President?” I looked at her and I said, “Are you kidding? He’s only been here 15 minutes.” Unfortunately, that woman was a good friend of Barack. He’s still mildly warm toward me, but … I would not have expected this event, the presidency of a black human being in my lifetime. But, you know, I was born in segregation. Martin and I were of basically the same generation. I mean, he would have turned 80 this year, and I’m turning 77 this year. And we were both born in segregation. We both had hope. We both put a lot of energy into this change. 

But we also have these awful memories of ‘30s, the ‘40s, the ‘50s and of corrupt urban, big urban power structures that just appalled Martin about Chicago, and I’ll talk about Chicago in a little while. So that we had seen so much. And we saw so many people, the country, come right up to the edge of saying, “Okay, now let’s do something about poverty in this country,” and back off because the black poverty thing was something they just didn’t want to do. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  Now speaking of your life, which as I was thinking about it kind of parallels a lot of the major turning points, I think, in our history, racial history anyway, race relations history. And I wonder from your vantage point if you would look over your life and pick maybe four points where you knew distinctively that a corner had been turned, and what that meant and how we got here now from those points. 

ROGER WILKINS:  Why did somebody put you, you’re so smart, and ask a question that is so good that I don’t even know how to start the answer? Shush. [laughter] Yeah, I think that World War II was huge for both lots of blacks and whites. I think there were a lot of white Americans who went off to fight that war. And it was pushed by our ordinary propaganda, a war against dictatorships, a war for democracy, a war to help the world see and embrace the kind of ideals that are in the Declaration of Independence.  I think a lot of white people came back from that war and they knew they had maybe seen some black soldiers or airmen or sailors do some really terrific things. And then they come back and they see these people are being treated badly. So I think in the white mind of lots and lots of white Americans, there was a new insight about the ugliness of our racism.  Then black soldiers came back and they say, “Wait a minute, you know? We put our lives on the line for this country. The country says it’s about this, that and the other thing. It’s got amendments in the Constitution that say this is wrong.” And I think World War II, I really do think that just made possible the other turning points. 

I believe that one of the most enormous changes was occasioned by a man named Branch Rickey, who was the general manager of the Dodgers, Brooklyn Dodgers, deciding after World War II that it was time for blacks to play major league baseball.  And so he hired a guy who had played for the Kansas City Monarchs, which was the first baseball team I ever saw, of the Negro League. And the guy’s name was Jack Roosevelt Robinson. I think Jackie changed the attitudes of all kinds of people. Because in those days, the rest of the sports hadn’t really developed good, professional [inaudible], so you didn’t have Celtics. And football teams were not very well noted. Baseball had America’s heart.  So this Robinson saga played out in front of everybody. And Jack was not only a superb athlete, but he was a superb human being. So he took all this abuse that these people heaped on him and still played well enough in his rookie year to become rookie of the year. And I have seen more people in my lifetime, mainly guys but women too, say that that was a turning point in their lives.  And it was so powerful. I don't know. The 50th anniversary of the breaking in, Jim Lehrer had Doris Kearns Goodwin and me on to reminisce with him. And Doris was raised in Brooklyn. Her father used to take her to baseball games, and so forth. By the time we got through talking about Jack, what a wonderful guy he was, what a great baseball player, all three of us were sitting there in front of the cameras with tears running down our eyes. But that’s how powerful. 

John Kennedy told us that this was time for a new generation of Americans to take over the country, people who had post-‘50s idealism, post-‘50s. You know, on the eve of Barack I’m reminded of John Kennedy so much because they’re both physically alike -- tall, slim, athletic, and personally physically graceful. And we all wanted to be that.  I went to the Kennedy Administration in 1962 when I was 30 years old. And the President would get up and he would make these: “And we’ll get it done over there.” So we would go out, we young new frontiersman, and we would say, “And we will get it done over there.” And ladies would come up afterwards and say, “Oh, Mr. Wilkins, oh, Mr. Wilkins, you sound so much like … You make me think of President Kennedy.” Really?

[laughter]  But he and that whole infusion of new frontier, more youthful people, particularly when juxtaposed against the Eisenhower Administration which had lots of heavyset rich guys, and this was slim, trim, go-get-‘em …   

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  … young …   

ROGER WILKINS:  Young. So it infused an awful lot of idealism. And underneath that was the civil rights movement which was prodding the Kennedy Administration on the subject of race, but also telling young people all over this country that you can be an agent for change. And so the southern civil rights movement began to look salt and peppery because all these idealistic young white kids were coming down and sharing the risks and the dangers. And some of them lost their lives. And that started the youth movement, the anti-war youth movement. 

So I think those all would have been major turning points, especially when I used to make speeches about ‘over there.’ 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  It would be helpful, I think, for this audience, for you to say how young you were when you were part of the new frontiersmen. Because it’s really interesting to see when we talk about some of the young people involved now in the Obama campaign.  

ROGER WILKINS:  I was 30 when I went to the Administration. And that just was so wonderful to be in Washington and to have the opportunity to work on the things I did.   

I didn’t go there to work in civil rights. I went there as the assistant to the administrator of the AID Program. And fairly soon my boss let me be the in-house dissident on the Vietnam War. That made me grow up real fast.  I guess I was a watcher of the civil rights activities of the Administration. And I wasn’t satisfied. And I was a dissident, but I mean

I was inside. I wasn’t being disloyal. I was being loyal.  All of that helped me grow in wonderful ways … well, I think wonderful. My wife might say something else.  

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  Talk about what that tension was like. Because in your book, your autobiography, you talk about being inside. And we always hear people when they talk about how one achieves change, that there have got to be some inside people. And then there’s got to be the people in the streets. But you were having some real issues at a certain point about being inside. 

ROGER WILKINS:  You’re a good, serious reader. That’s exactly right. You know, I envy … Here, Martin was down in the South, and he had done these really dramatic things. He’d done Montgomery and then they did Birmingham. And that was just riveting. And these young people were deeply involved. I was just moved to no end. But I was also married and a little over 30 and with a child. And that child, that first one, she is making my head go nutsy, because tomorrow I will be the father of somebody older than President of The United States. And I don’t like it. 

But, you know, if you did civil rights in the government, your bosses were white. And your bosses didn’t understand American race as you did. I mean, in order to understand American race really well, go live as a student in a segregated school. See all of the most powerful people you know, adults that is, your parents and their friends, being squashed down into little boxes because of segregation.  So I knew a lot more about race and racism. And, you know, my uncle was the head of the NAACP. So I knew lots of stuff. And I knew that these people in the Justice Department really thought they knew, but there was stuff they didn’t know. And they were anxious to learn it from black people.

And so I was constrained. But I did resist. But part of me said, “God, if I could only be down there with Martin and those guys. They don’t have to answer to any white people.” You know, got to answer to white people who give you money, but they’re not your bosses. But I couldn’t do that. 

And Martin was terrific to me. He, more than any other civil rights leader, including my uncle (but that was for a different reason), he was more supportive of me and what I was doing inside. Somebody said, “Well, you know, Wilkins up there, he said he’s like Roy,” blah, blah, blah. And Martin said, “Don’t be silly. Roger is the leader of the wing of the civil rights movement inside the government.”  When that came back to me from this person, a lot of the tension that you just talked about disappeared. Because I knew that people, some people out there really understood how hard it was, but how hard we were trying.

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  In fact, being inside and having the position that you did, and particularly when you were with the Commission and the assignment was to identify the hotspots in The United States. And you would be kind of like a S.W.A.T. team of some sort, but from a humanistic standpoint, to come in and deal with the issues on the ground.  I wish you would share with the audience just one example of your having been in place made a difference. Because it’s important for you all to know that he was one brown face inside this sea of people, one voice often saying something completely different from what was understood by not only the bosses, but just general understanding about black folks and person of color in general.

ROGER WILKINS:  Well, President Johnson would call up and say, “There’s a riot in such and such a city. And I want you to go out there.” Anybody else had said that to me I’d say, “Are you crazy?” But I think probably the most … well, there were a number of them. But I think Detroit, Detroit was the hardest because it was so bloody and so scary and so badly led by its, at least its governor. And the mayor was a nice man, but I don't think he was terribly good. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  The governor, by the way, was Mitt Romney’s dad. Continue. 

ROGER WILKINS:  That’s right. I had to go out every night when there was shooting.

And you didn’t know who was doing the shooting. And a lot of times it was the young National Guardsmen who live way up in the north of Michigan. You know, these kids had never been in Detroit when Detroit was peaceful. And now they’re in Detroit and they’re scared to death. And sometimes the shooting would just be these Guardsmen shooting out the streetlight so they could not be seen. 

And my job was to go out every night and see who’s shooting and why. And I almost got killed. But because I was able to say, “This shooting is not what we need. We need fewer troops in there. And there are community people who will go, church people who will go and do things …” And I think that probably prevented … You never know what didn’t happen, and how much of what didn’t happen was because of you. But I think clearly there was a difference; the amount of shooting and the death declined almost immediately.

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  And now as we fast-forward to this particular time and we’ve had two years, or you had two years, to watch a young guy you thought would be there about 15 minutes do something else and start to sort of captivate this nation.  What were your early thoughts? I did read that you said in 2006, “If he were my younger brother, I would advise him to wait and not to run just yet.” 

ROGER WILKINS:  Did I say that?

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  Yes, you did. 

ROGER WILKINS:  Barack, I didn’t mean it. The audacity of this man is just unbelievable. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  Would that be The Audacity of Hope

ROGER WILKINS:  He’s really a phenomenon. He is hugely smart. He’s self-contained in a way that I’ve not seen ever.  Well, he’s not afraid of smart people. In that way, he’s like John Kennedy:  go get the biggest, best brains you can and, like Kennedy, has the misperception that all of those big brains you can find at Harvard. My wife went to Harvard; I’m an ordinary person, you know? 

But he’s not afraid to be challenged by smart people. He wants their best brains. And if their best brains say, “Barack, where you’re going is not going to work, you’ve got to go this way,” he will do that. And his temperament is really terrific. He doesn’t rattle. So if you have a person in charge who is really, really smart, highly motivated, anxious to have conversations with people who disagree with him … I saw in the paper today he’s reached out to John McCain. He wants to have a relationship with John McCain. He thinks they can do some business on medical stuff. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  Well, having a black tie dinner for him tonight. 

ROGER WILKINS:  Yeah. So I think he has all the tools to be a successful President.

The problem is that the problems that he’s facing are so enormous. And the forces that are propelling those problems, I mean, you know, Hamas and the Israelis? And then, you know, there’s all this with the banks and stuff, there’s still all of this sour money, sour vehicles out there that can still pull down some banks. And meanwhile, lots of vulnerable people have gone off the job lines. So he’s going to have one enormous set of problems.  But I really can’t -- I don't think this is because of race -- I really can’t think of anybody that I’ve encountered in my lifetime who I would think to be intellectually and emotionally created to deal with this set of problems. I’m quite hopeful. I mean, we’re going to get dinged up some more. And there’s going to be some more blood. But I think he and this quite extraordinary team he’s put together will ultimately bring us out of the doldrums. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  Well, let me bring it back to race, just a bit with regard to him. And understanding that President-Elect Barack Obama is a phenomenon, you know, of large proportion, he’s also been touted as sort of an example of a cadre of new Black leadership, new Black politics, if you will. Those who don’t look to the civil rights movement, you know, as their way of protest and moving forward, they have a different vision and shape. And there’re several of them out there:  There’s Cory Booker. There’s Deval Patrick right here in Massachusetts. And I wonder, do you buy that? Is that something that you see? Is there a new Black politics? Is he an example of that? 

ROGER WILKINS:  Oh, I think there is a new Black politics, yes. It now seems like an anachronism that Jesse ran for President, you know? And I worked for Jesse, not because I thought Jesse was going to be President or that I thought he was going to be a good President. I mean, if I thought Jackson was really going to be a President, I probably wouldn’t have worked on the campaign. But I thought it’d be a civics lesson for the country, that there are black people who are smart enough to be President.   Jesse has a piece in The Washington Post this morning. And he called me the other day for the first time in years. It just seems anachronistic, you know? It’s from a time …   

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  And why? Why does it feel that way? Because there are those who say, I think appropriately, were there no campaign runs by Jesse Jackson in ’84 and ’88, there could never have been a pathway for Barack Obama.

ROGER WILKINS:  Well, I think that’s right. But it’s like the caterpillar, you know, that produces the butterfly. When the butterfly is on the wing, the caterpillar is no longer needed. You know, I worked for Jesse. I didn’t know Barack Obama, but so that there could be a Black President and some day … Wasn’t sure it would happen in my lifetime, but some day.  Well, now there is. And so you look at Jesse and you think, well, thank you very much. We’re glad you did it. And thank you for your service. And now let’s move on. 

I think that this new breed of Black politicians, first of all, it shows that more and more Black people are getting better and better education, so that the pool of people who are able to do these political jobs, Back people, is a much larger pool.  And secondly, you know, our generation, my generation, we’re accused of being in a time warp, you know, being back there in those heady days of the civil rights movement. But now it’s people who are better political technicians and who can more easily operate across the racial divide. I think that’s right. I would accept from anybody, except my wife, the proposition that I was a Neanderthal. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  You think that’s right?

ROGER WILKINS:  Oh yeah. Look at people who are going to be in the Cabinet. I don’t belong there. I mean, part of it is just sheer energy, you know? I mean, these jobs are hard to do. And they take lots and lots of time. And you’re in lots and lots of meetings. And you’ve got to be very patient, because not everybody in those meetings is smart. And not everybody in those meetings is well-meaning. And so you’ve really got to spend a lot of time.  It’s hard work.  And I don’t have the energy for that work. And I think most of us don’t. 

And the other thing is that when we went to college, many of us went to all Black colleges. But I went to an integrated state university. And there weren’t terribly many of us. And we were going to be the doctors and the lawyers and the dentists who took care of the Black population. That was what we were going to do. 

These young people now, the young people, Black people, they go through college much more easily where there’s a lot less friction for them. And they do a lot more things. So the people you see close to Barack now are very successful businessmen and lawyers and entrepreneurs on a scale that our generation never really understood and never approached. So he’s got a pool of people to draw from his age who have more skills for the kind of problems we have, and a bunch of young people who come out of that “yes we can, yes we can” stuff, like my 25 year-old daughter. And they have a sense of America that we didn’t have. Ours was oppositional. Ours was stand up and struggle with them. You know?

My best memories and things that I’m most proud of is when I stood up to the Kennedys and said, “No. No. No. I don't believe this.” Well, you don’t have to do that anymore.

And it’s not as risky as it was then. So I think there is, yes. I think there is a new Black political movement. I think it is richer and more flexible than we were. And to coin a phrase, it’s time for a change. [applause]

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  So just to put a button on this, do you think the politics of protest, as so often the civil rights generation has been described, is that dead? Or is it something that works alongside of the kind of new Black politics that Barack represents?

ROGER WILKINS:  I think that there are times when people should take to the streets. I’ve served on the school board in the District of Columbia. I would think that it would be appropriate for people to go into the streets about the low level of education made available for poor Black kids and poor Hispanic kids. That’s worth going into the streets about. And I think healthcare, in Washington at least, the places where poor people could go and get decent care, they’re gone.  

So when there are problems that the bureaucratic culture wants to slide by, and maybe sometimes the elected too, well, that’s the time for people to go into the streets and to do what they did in the past. And that is, give voice, political voice, to people who otherwise would have no voice. So yeah, there’s time for still marching. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  You said we’re not post-racial. But I’m hearing a little bit in your last response that maybe there’s some generational stuff going on. And I am reminded that Gwen Ifill, who’s the author of a new book (she’ll be here Thursday) The Breakthrough: Politics in the Age of Obama, said just this morning that she thought in some ways maybe the cadre of people we’ve just described is more generational than race-based. And I wondered, is that possible? Can it all be about the generation really, and given that the people that she’s talking about in her book are all Black?

ROGER WILKINS:  Well, I think sure it’s generational. I mean, if you’re born in ’29 or ’32, as Martin and I were, you know, you have a mindset or a memory set that people who are half our age don’t have. And, you know, if you’re a Black person and the words Senator Bilbo send chills up your spine, you’re one generation. But if somebody says those words and the person says, “Who?,” that’s totally different. 

And I look at both my daughters. Both are public interest people. And there’s a reason that they’re called your children, it’s because they know more than you do about a lot of stuff. And that’s generational.

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  I wonder if we could take a few minutes from your vantage point now, put your hat on as a journalist, and look back at the coverage of the campaign with a prism of race going through it. How would you grade the media?

ROGER WILKINS:  Well, when you say ‘the media,’ I have to tell you, I only …   

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  We’re talking about journalists now, not Maury Povich and crowd. 

ROGER WILKINS:  And I only read two papers, sometimes three. But they’re the best papers in the country. They’re The New York Times, Washington Post, and Financial Times, are the papers we take at our house. I think these papers were very responsible. And I think that they tried very hard not to see race when race wasn’t there and to deal with race intelligently and dispassionately when it was appropriate to do it. 

Interestingly, I think that two places where it really could have boiled over were handled very well by the press. And they’re both Clinton’s. One was after Obama won the South Carolina primary, Bill said, “Well, you know, Jesse Jackson won South Carolina, too.” 

I think that that was an attempt to deflate the importance of that victory for Barack and to do it by using this racial parallel. I also think that Hillary … I did not like Bill Clinton as President, but I’ve always liked her. But when she said, “Well, we’ve got to do something for working people, white people” [simultaneous conversation] …   

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  … hardworking white Americans. 

ROGER WILKINS:  Yeah, I was appalled. I was really appalled because that’s stirring it up. That’s really saying, “He’s Black. Vote for me.” And the press reported it, but it didn’t go nuts. And, you know, I think that the first really Black candidate who had a chance to be nominated and then elected, the thing was, you know, fraught with just below the surface capacities to break out in fire. And it didn’t happen. And I think it didn’t happen because the members of the press really didn’t think that that was an effective way to cover the campaign. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  Now, you know, the press that you’re talking about, it’s a very tiny piece.  What’s going on out here now -- we’ve got the blogosphere, which was very intense during this time, and cable television was 24/7. So, now, if you put the traditional journalists that you’ve identified in that context, what did people take away from all of this coverage? 

ROGER WILKINS:  Right. Well, I have to tell you that I really absorb journalism. I just love it. My father was a journalist and he died when he was young, 35. And because I idolized him, despite my law degree, I became a journalist. But it was really, from down deep, an homage to my father. And therefore, I’m pro journalist. 

But I don't think that those people who yell on TV are journalists. Even though Keith Olbermann holds views that are very similar to mine, I do not think he’s a journalist.

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  Well, he’s not. 

ROGER WILKINS:  And I think that he and Bill O’Reilly should just take a boat to … Just go away. [laughter] [applause]

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  Together? In the same boat? 

ROGER WILKINS:  They deserve it. There used to be a song about, I’d like to get you on a slow boat to China. Yeah, bye fellas. I did it a little bit when I was in journalism, do television and radio, television really. And I thought that it was a real conflict between doing that and doing what I did for a living, because what I did for a living was to work with a set of facts that I thought was important and to put it to my readers in a way that was comprehensible and useful to them. 

Now, if there was something terrible, you know, like, I got some news that Bernie Madoff was a crook, I mean, I would put that in there to “bam” him. But usually you don’t have … I just don’t think the yelling is helpful. And I don't think that people who are so into the back and forth fighting between each other, that they’re slippery about the facts. I don't think that’s good for our democracy. I really don’t. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  Do you think the people -- whether they read traditional media or other stuff -- came away with some kind of changed viewpoint about race in this country based on some of the issues that were highlighted in the campaign, some of the incidents? And then from that we went off to talk about various cultural differences. You know, this is a silly thing, but I’m thinking about the fist jab, you know, all this kind of stuff. Yeah. There’s a lot of other stuff that got quite a bit of attention that, you know, might not have. I mean, it seems silly. But in the context of really people trying to understand …   

ROGER WILKINS:  But, see, the people who did the fist thumping thing were people

… they weren’t journalists. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  That’s true. 

ROGER WILKINS:  They were propagandists who were trying to make Obama seem exotic and not right for our culture. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  Okay, that’s true. 

ROGER WILKINS:  And so what we got, if you’re reading The New York Times, yeah, you get the fist bump, people saying, “What is that? Some kind of Middle Eastern greeting?” But the traditional press very quickly told you who was saying it and what the motivation was.

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  Okay, here’s the question:  did so much attention to silly things or in larger incidents help with our understanding, help advance the conversation on race, which Bill Clinton tried to have some time ago, but, you know, really when it comes down to it [simultaneous conversation] … But people don’t really have the conversation about race. And whether Obama himself and his campaign chose to speak about it, they didn’t. There were so many other things that came up during the campaign. But I wonder from your vantage point, did that advance this country? 

ROGER WILKINS:  I think what has advanced discussion about race in this country (and the discussion will go on for the next four years) is that we’re going to have a Black President tomorrow. [applause] You know? And he’s a smart guy and he’s a hardworking guy, but you don’t have to like him. You may think his approaches to things are really not very good. That’s fair, you know? It’s not because he’s a Black guy you can’t say that he made mistakes. I mean, when Jackie Robinson struck out you didn’t say, “Oh, strike two,” you know? “He’s out.” I may be wrong, but I think this is an exemplary fellow. He certainly is going to make mistakes. But I think that there will be a very good, rich national discussion, just as we’re finishing up a rich national discussion about the George W. Bush Administration, so we will have a good, rich discussion about the Obama Administration or Administrations. And, of course, it’ll have race in it. But I suspect that race will not be the predominant thing that you will say about Barack once he’s been the President for a certain amount of years. So I guess what I think is that it helps us feel differently about race in very intimate ways. 

Just a little story and it’ll maybe illustrate this point. I was doing a visit at the University of Oklahoma about 10, twelve years ago. And I was doing a seminar for students partly about race, but partially about culture as well. And a black student put up his hand. His name was Oscar. And he said, “You know, they don’t want us here. They just don’t want us here. And I know that.” I said, “Well, how do you know that, Oscar?” He said, “Because that look they give you.” I said, “What is the look, Oscar?” He said, “‘What are you doing here?’” And I said, “And when do you see that, Oscar?” He said, “Every time I open a door.”

Well, I know that look and you know that look. And I think just since November 4th that I see that look less frequently, which mean to me, if I’m not seeing things, that there are a lot of white Americans who, after the Obama business is over, will feel a lot more at ease with African-Americans. And I think that’s big culturally. But it’s not, “Wham, boop, bam.” It’s at that other, deeper level. That you know and I know when it’s deep but real, it can be murderous when you’re at work or competing for something. I think that this is having an effect at that level. 

And I want to tell you something. The people who are going to have an awful lot to do with that level changing are Malia and Sasha Obama. I’m already in love with Sasha. I’ll vote for her any day. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  What I wonder is, looking back at your second book -- or not your second, you have many books -- but Jefferson’s Pillow and the dilemma of black patriotism in light of what we’ve been talking about now, but we’ve been talking about white people reducing their level of the look. And as Black people have been traveling to Washington … and many interviews with people about, “Why are you going?”  They’re so excited, so full of pride. 

ROGER WILKINS:  That’s what I say to all those people that come to my house: “Why are you going? When are you going home?” [laughter]

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  But at the same time, many people are, you know, feeling …

They can’t say for sure this is it for them in terms of their lives, sort of what that poll said. People on a global level say there’s less racism, but in their own lives they’re feeling something else. And I wonder if you could talk about Black patriotism and that dilemma even, as you say, things look mighty good right now, or at least we’re going in a good direction. 

ROGER WILKINS:  Well, I used to tell my students when I taught that they had to understand as they looked at the problems of the world that they were among the luckiest people on the face of the Earth. And they would say, “Well, why?” I said, “Suppose you were born in Zimbabwe or Turkmenistan or the middle of the Gobi desert.” And they said, “Oh, yeah.” 

You know, I think for all its faults, this is a terrific country. And, from my point of view, I can’t give up on it. Because I had several generations of slave ancestors. And they lived in the hope, in the belief (they were religious people) God would make us free some day. And I really believe. I thought in the ‘60s that we were doing a sprint, and it would all be over, you know? And that’s why we were running, running, running and came out messed up, because we’d used up every ounce of whatever it was that made us possible. 

And I realized that it’s a relay. And it’s a long distance relay. I don't know about life after death. But I try to conduct myself in a way that if I were to meet some of my slave ancestors after I die, I’d have to answer the question, “What did you do with your freedom, boy? What did you do with your freedom?” And I have to align what I do with my freedom with what I think their hopes and aspirations were. 

I’ve forgotten what your question was.  

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  Black patriotism. 

ROGER WILKINS:  Oh yeah. Well, so, I wasn’t born in Turkmenistan. I was born in Missouri. And when I was a boy my country got into a war, World War II. And I thought we were terrific. And I thought the Nazis and the Fascists and the Japanese, I just thought they were horrible. And I was for our country 150%. And I wished and wished and wished. My dearest wish was that I would be transformed into a guy 20 years-old so I could fly P-51 Mustangs against the Messerschmitt-109s over Europe. 

And I knew that there was a Declaration of Independence. I knew what it said. And I knew there was a Gettysburg Address.  But I thought that this country was better. And now I’ve lived long enough to live and be a friend of and an associate of or a relative of most of the elements of the civil rights movement. And I am proud of what we did. And I don't think that could have happened any other way, in any other country. We have changed our country from the country that I was born into 77 years ago, to a country which is much more open and welcoming to its, not just black, but non-white citizens. And it’s done it as a result of its written ideals. 

I don't know any other country in the world that has made such a humane transformation, transformation in terms of getting to more decency and more justice on the basis of its own ideals. I don't know. There’s not another country that has that story to tell. And am I glad I live in the country that has it? Yeah. And am I glad that I participated, I was lucky enough to participate in it? Yeah. And do I feel deeply American? Yeah. And do I think America still has lots and lots of flaws? Yeah. And am I still a patriot? Yeah. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  So there really isn’t a dilemma so much as you just understand what … you have a holistic view, if you will, of patriotism? 

ROGER WILKINS:  Well, yeah. You know, in the ‘60s I was with the Justice Department, and the Justice Department was the bad department to lots of Black radicals. And so my staff members and I were often viewed as spies, just in the community, trying to get our secrets and get us on the FBI’s Most Wanted List and stuff like that. 

And I remember … this will really tell you. I made a talk in Detroit. Detroit was the hotbed, really along with Oakland, of Black radical intellectualism in the ‘60s. And, ‘course, I knew a lot of people in Detroit when I went to the University of Michigan. And I made this talk in a big auditorium where there were no white people at all that I remember. And there were Black radicals.  And here I am, an assistant attorney general of the United States.  I finished this talk about justice and about the things we needed to do, and we had to push and so forth. And a guy stood up, long and lanky, in the back.

And I knew who he was because he was a guy that we’d played basketball with when I was in college. And the guy talked so much, we called him Television.  And so Television stands up. Here’s how he talked. “Well, my brother, Wilkins, now my brother, Wilkins, it’s good that you are on our side in this situation. But the situation is very deep, you see, my brother, very deep and very difficult. And I want to tell you, my brother, that it is wonderful that you come all the way up to the edge of the water but you do not, you do not get in the water, my brother, because you are not for our having guns. Yay!” 

This is a family place, so I cannot tell you what the thoughts were going through my mind. But I can tell you, there was a total river of sweat right down the back of my backbone.  So I said, “My brother, thank you for your question.” And I paused and I said, “You know, I came into this government and took the oath of office that I’m operating on now because I wanted to help poor Black people. And the President said I could do that.

And the Attorney General said I could do that.”  I said, “Now, I know you went to school here in Detroit and I went to school in Grand Rapids. So maybe they do arithmetic differently. But by the way I count there’s a whole lot more white people than there are Black people. And if you pass out guns on a racial basis, there gonna be a whole lot more white people shooting at us than there are Black trigger fingers shooting out.”  And I said,

“So my brother, I did not take this job to get Black people killed. I took this job to get white and Black people to start talking to each other about things that bother them both, so we can have a better country.” And I said that extemporaneously and under severe pressure. Do you understand, my sister? 


ROGER WILKINS:  And it was the absolute truth. I love this country. You know? I don’t love Senator Bilbo or Senator Eastland or Senator Jesse Helms, but I love our struggle. And it’s an honorable and a decent and a humane struggle. And I’m glad to have been a part of it. I’m proud of my part. And I’m proud of my country. I think I’ve just resolved the dilemma of my Black patriotism. But in the days of the revolution, the Black revolution, there was the question, I mean, the assertion, “Black person cannot be a patriot, because the country has been too mean to us. And so we must oppose this country.  And even withdraw from the country and be our own black country.”

And some of that stuff was when you’re really down and low and your efforts didn’t really seem to be moving the country, and then to hear this, “Oh, well, we have to have a revolution, and then we can all, Black people, get together.”  And it sounded, you know, superficially, it sounded terrific and it sounded like it would ease my psychic burden. But that was wrong. The only way to ease that psychic burden was to do what I was hired to do because that’s what I wanted to do, and to deal with it, even under distress, the way I dealt with Kenny Cochorel(?), known as Television. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  Some would say that, you know, what he was expressing then was really the edge of just a lot of dashed hopes for people who had great expectations about what they should get as citizens of this country. And I’m wondering, when we look back at the election -- and 95% of African-Americans voted. The voters, who were African-American, supported Barack Obama. Is their expectation too high? Do they expect more from him? Lots of folks voted for him, obviously. And it just wasn’t Black people. But for that particular segment of the population, there’s a lot of expectation.

I would also add that in The Washington Post today, there’s another article about a woman in the Delta of Mississippi. And she’s talking about trying to ratchet down the expectations of the people in her community. And I think her statement was, “After all, he is a politician. He is not God.” And I’m wondering what your take is on that. 

ROGER WILKINS:  Well, I think there probably are a lot of people who think that it’s magic, that somehow he can get in the White House and say, today … Well, it’s what they thought John F. Kennedy could do, and it was Kennedy’s mistake. In the campaign of ’60 John Kennedy said, “We can end discrimination in housing with a stroke of the pen.” Well, then time passed. And he didn’t sign a housing order and he didn’t do it and he didn’t do it and he didn’t do it.  Black people started sending him pens. They did. That’s true. They did. 

But the idea that a President can sign an executive order and that’ll change things, I’m sure there’re some people who believe that. And they will be disappointed. But there are more people who, I think, understand how difficult it is. And he will be able to say, “I am trying to do these things. I’ve got an education program. I’ve got a health program. I’ve got a reduction of tax program for the poorest workers,” stuff like that. 

You can’t fix what’s been broken for centuries in the one presidential term. It’s just not doable. So he’s going to have to do some things that are concrete and do some things that are … I mean, it’s done. Arne Duncan, as Secretary of Education, is just terrific. He knows how to do it and he’s going to help this country educate poor kids. I love that. And there will be other things like that. But change is tough and takes a long time. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  This is time for you if you have questions for Mr. Wilkins, to go to the microphone. We’re going to have questions and no comments. And I will identify if there is a comment.

Forty-six years ago, as you know, Martin Luther King did the “I Have A Dream” speech. And people are saying that Barack Obama’s election is the very embodiment of the dream. We got the dream now. But I was interested in the fact that Reverend Bernice King, who was his daughter, said, “This is a significant milestone,” but she does not describe it as the dream. There’s work to be done. Would you agree? 

ROGER WILKINS:  I always thought Bernice was the smartest of those kids. She’s really smart. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  And you agree with that? 


QUESTION:  Good afternoon. Thank you for creating this opportunity and having this forum. I won’t be long-winded, as I tend to be. 

I’m one of the breed of the new Black politician. I’m going to be running for public office. And I’m very curious as to -- because I may not get this opportunity again -- to hear some of your thoughts on what do you think the need is for this kind of new Black politician going forward? Because I think some of the groundwork has been laid, but there’s still a lot of work to do. And there are plenty of questions to be stated. And I think that they come from sages like yourself and other elder veterans.    



ROGER WILKINS:  Vote for this man. [laughter] 

QUESTION:  I’m going to leave there, else I’ll talk more.

ROGER WILKINS:  I think that it is healthy to get away from the politics of, “They did this to me and therefore….”  We have a mayor who is part of the new Black politicians, Adrian Fenty. Now, I don't know how Adrian’s going to work out. I voted for him, and I campaigned for him. The new Black politician, in my view, is somebody who can demonstrate that she or he is a person who can serve the best interest of the whole community, but still has a very clear view of those people who are most in pain or most in need of government help. And very often it’ll be the black poor or the Hispanic poor.  But it has to be, I think, in a framework that is addressing the ills of the entire city.    That was a step, the first black mayor and all that stuff. But now you have to be a mayor who is a mayor for all the people. But maybe you are more sensitive about certain issues than a white politician would be. But that’s not the center of your service. Does that help? 

QUESTION:  I was offended by how the media during the campaign dealt with the Reverend Wright issue. Because I believe that the Black churches have provided so much leadership to the civil rights movement that I found the 24/7 exposure of Reverend Wright and editing his comments kind of ugly, very ugly I’d say. I liked the way Barack dealt with it in his … 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  What’s your question?

QUESTION:  My question is how do you feel Barack dealt with that issue? And how do you assess the media’s treatment of the Reverend Wright?  And how do you see President Obama dealing with the issue of where he worships moving forward? I actually thought it was really the ugliest part of the campaign. 

ROGER WILKINS:  I know Reverend Wright. 

QUESTION:  My preacher knows Reverend Wright. 

ROGER WILKINS:  And I was the commentator on a public TV PBS show on the

Black church. It was called “Keeping The Faith.” And the producer of the show, Sherry Jones, had picked out a church in Chicago that she thought would be the good church to show what the Black church is about now. And this is before anybody knew anything about Barack Obama.  And the church she chose was Trinity. And we came away from that church so impressed with Jeremiah Wright and his social gospel. Now, I only went to that church once, just to get a feel of what it was.  I mean, I went to the church on weekdays to see all the programs they were running. And I went to one Sunday service. It was a terrific sermon. It was moving. It was in the tradition of the Black preacher, but it didn’t have any of that bad stuff. And I do think that people did try to blast Barack away because of his association with Reverend Wright. But it’s not totally unfair, because Barack had said that this guy was his mentor, brought him into religion, and so forth. And then you see him saying, “Goddamn America”? I mean, that is not swell stuff to say in anybody’s pulpit.

QUESTION:  But he’s allowed to be angry. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  But are you concerned about where he worships being an issue?

That’s her larger … you know, choice of where he worships -- Black church, white church, I guess. Will that become an issue in light of that? 

ROGER WILKINS:  Well, I don't know. They went to a church yesterday, and it was a Black church. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  And they went to St. John’s before and that’s not a Black church, so I think they’re going to try to be in the middle for a while. 

ROGER WILKINS:  Yeah. And I also think a lot of Presidents are really phony about church. They don’t really like to go. Reagan, Reagan was straight up about it. I mean, I don't know what he said, but he never went to church. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  What we’re going to do now is I’m going to have all of you ask your questions, so that Mr. Wilkins can try to just rapidly answer them. So give me your question, then I’m going to go straight down the line and get everybody’s. 

QUESTION:  When asked by Ms. Crossley the four milestones along the way, you started with World War II. One of the great historic groups in World War II was the Tuskegee Airmen. 

ROGER WILKINS:  One of whom was the father of Tony Dungy. 

QUESTION:  Is that right?

ROGER WILKINS:  … the great Colt [simultaneous conversation].  

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  And they’ll be marching tomorrow. Your question? 

QUESTION:  Eleanor Roosevelt had to fly down to get the Ways and Means Committee to approve the continued funding for the Tuskegee Airmen and to enable the Tuskegee Airmen to fly ahead of the bombers going into Berlin. And it was a white head of that squadron that pleaded to have those men fly because they hadn’t lost a single bomber. And 65 years later the survivors will be in the parade tomorrow. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  Thank you. Question? 

QUESTION:  You mentioned the written ideals of the nation, which the Constitution forms part of. Constitution these days has been very badly battered for the last eight years. Do you have anything to say about the need to investigate and prosecute the outgoing Administration’s assault on the Constitution?

QUESTION:  I’m interested in your perspective on President Kennedy’s speed with which he dealt with civil rights. I know Abraham Lincoln was criticized by abolitionists for not moving faster on emancipation. And given your perspective 50 years later, do you think that John Kennedy should have moved faster? And what were the major influences that did make him move?

QUESTION:  I hope this is on subject enough. I’ve always been confused by AfricanAmericans who are Republicans. 

ROGER WILKINS:  Me, too. [laughter]

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  What’s your question? 

QUESTION:  So my question is, you know, do you think it’s based more on economic issues? I don’t feel it can be based on social issues. Thank you. 

QUESTION:  What problem do you think President Obama should tackle first?

QUESTION:  I’m from Soviet Union and I have a very positive attitude toward Blacks because of Soviet propaganda. All this was very great about Blacks. And I saw first Black person and my (inaudible) look, this guy is painted in Black. But over here I was offended by (inaudible) Blacks. I’ve been in poor neighborhood a lot. And I was offended by Blacks who referred to me not as a person, but as a white, “Look, this is whites.” And what do you think about racial, Blacks against whites? 

QUESTION:  Good afternoon. Question:  you just said we cannot fix what’s been broken for centuries. What are the plans for reversing the policies towards Native American people? And also there’re plans for Black poors and Hispanic poors. Are there any talks for Native poor people? 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  So your first is since the Constitution has been battered, is there a need to investigate the outgoing President’s undermining of certain Constitutional tenets and principles? 

ROGER WILKINS:  Yeah, I think they should be.  I think the investigation should go forward. And I think that if laws were broken, people should be prosecuted. If you don’t do that, you’re saying, “Well, the law doesn’t mean anything. If the government wants to break the law, then the law doesn’t mean anything.” Well, that blows away your Bill of Rights. [applause]  

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  President Kennedy’s speed at which he dealt with civil rights, could it have been faster? Should it have been faster?

ROGER WILKINS:  The honest question to you is that the moment that I treasure most is when I had the opportunity to write a memorandum to the President about my views on his race policies and his lack of speed therewith. And I was at a precarious place. My first boss had left. My new boss wasn’t coming. I didn’t want to sink down into the bureaucracy. I was a political appointee. I could be fired on the boss’s whim. But I really thought the President was going too slowly. 

I was terrified that I had this opportunity to write, and I was pulled to do it.  And I said to myself, you’ve got to do this because you’re here speaking for people who can’t speak for themselves. And then on the other side, I was saying, well, god, geez, I’m going to lose my job. I’ve got a child, another on the way, blah, blah, blah. And so I finally asked myself the question, “Are you a man or a lump of coal?” You can finish the sentence. And I said to myself, “You’ve got a good education. And you are here and have the opportunity to speak for people who can’t speak for themselves. And you’re going to do it because … You’re worried about your job? To hell with you. You write that.”  And I did. And it was a very tough memorandum. It was so tough that Bobby Kennedy said, “He’s callow. He’s young. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And he’ll never work in the Justice Department as long as I’m Attorney General.” And that came true. I’m proud. I’m proud of that memo. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  So he should have moved faster. What problem then should President Obama tackle first, following that? 

ROGER WILKINS:  I think it’s the economy. I mean, if you don’t have an economy you don’t have anything. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  And about African-Americans who are Republicans -- speaking of the economy -- are economic concerns their driving issue as far as you’re concerned, as far as you know?

ROGER WILKINS:  Well, I think two things. You know, Black people voted Republican 100% after Lincoln. And when I was about 40 or so, I was writing something. And I asked my mother a question. And she said, “Well, you know in ’32 I voted for Hoover.” I said, “You did what?” She said, “I voted for Hoover.” I said, “From henceforth and forever you will be my former mother.” I think, you know, basically they are pursuing their economic interests like a lot of people do in figuring out who to vote for. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  What do you think about the … Well, the gentleman was characterizing that he didn’t really appreciate being called a white, as he would assume some Black people didn’t appreciate being called Black in that way, “a Black.” So what do you think about this racial identification in that way, instead of, you know, people where they are? 

ROGER WILKINS:  I think we’re stuck with it. We’ve looked at ourselves this way for so long, that you just can’t change it now. But I can tell you that the Soviet Union offended me very deeply, too. I went over there once, a couple times when there was still a Soviet Union. And each time the KGB sent women to trick me into bed so they could, you know, take pictures.  Oh, I thought they were saying, “Boy, this Black guy is stupid.” 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  Plans for reversing roles, policies that have impacted Native Americans, you’ve talked about Black folks. You’ve talked about Hispanics. What about Native Americans?

ROGER WILKINS:  I think that it’s a terrible, terrible thing that we as a nation from almost the beginning of European life here in 1609 or so … First of all, you’ve got to clear out the Interior Department. I mean, it’s just been a corrupt operation. And it’s been terrible to Native Americans. I think, you know, education. You know, I’m happy that Native Americans are getting some money by casinos. But I’d rather build more schools, good schools, than I would casinos. But if you’re going to have casinos, they have to be run in a way that the return goes back to the entrepreneur and not some guy on the outside who’s acting as a shill.  Cleaning out the Interior Department would kind of be like the Aegean stables. But it’s got to be done. I think Native Americans deserve to be treated better, and I think that the Obama presidency would respond to Native Americans pressing on those issues. 

CALLIE CROSSLEY:  Well, we appreciate your very thoughtful and witty response.

I’ll close with these words from Martin Luther King on his 80th birthday: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Thank you so much Roger Wilkins. [applause]