L. Douglas Wilder Wins Center for Politics’ Award for Defending Democracy

September 29, 2023 By Bryan McKenzie, bkm4s@virginia.edu Bryan McKenzie, bkm4s@virginia.edu

The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics presented former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, whose political career spanned four decades, with its annual Defender of Democracy Award for taking “positive actions to improve or strengthen democracy.”

In 1989, Wilder, a Democrat, won election as the nation’s first Black gubernatorial candidate to prevail in a statewide, general election. He was also the first African American elected to the Virginia Senate post-Reconstruction and the first African American elected as the state’s lieutenant governor.

The 2023 Defender of Democracy Award is the second given by the center, but Wilder is the 10th person to receive it. In its inaugural event year last year, the center presented the award to nine U.S. Capitol and D.C. Metropolitan police officers who defended the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato, who presented Wilder with the award Friday at a luncheon at the Rotunda Dome Room, said Wilder is a fighter on behalf of democracy.

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“In 1969, in his run for Senate, his poster had his slogan and his slogan was, ‘You can make democracy work.’ So, from the very beginning to the present day, he has worked for democracy and to broaden participation and democracy and to make the system effective for everyone,” Sabato said in his introduction of Wilder.

He also recalled meeting Wilder while Sabato was an aide to another state senator.

“He was also in your category of those considered troublemakers, because you believed that Virginia had a future that was better than its past,” Sabato said. “It was not a popular position for a long time.”

Wilder attended racially segregated public schools in his hometown of Richmond and graduated from Virginia Union University in 1951 with a degree in chemistry. He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War where he was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism in combat.

Larry Sabato speaks at a podium

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics, introduced Wilder at a Friday luncheon in the Rotunda at which the former governor was presented with the award. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

After the war, he earned his law degree from Howard University School of Law and established his own firm, Wilder, Gregory and Associates.

After leaving the governor’s mansion in 1995, Wilder tested the waters for a possible campaign for the U.S. Senate and even the presidency. In the early 2000s, he helped reform the governing structure of Richmond to create a strong-mayor form of government. Voters overwhelmingly approved the change. In 2004, Wilder was elected as Richmond’s first strong mayor in about 50 years.

When Wilder retired from the mayor’s office in 2009, he returned to his role as a professor at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I am pleased to be here. I’m pleased to be anywhere, at my age,” Wilder, 92, joked on Friday, after receiving the award. “I am pleased to be anywhere and to have the opportunity to still engage and be a part of whatever is going on.”

Wilder speaks at podium

Wilder told friends, family and students attending the luncheon that they must get involved in their communities and in politics, even if they cause trouble. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Wilder recalled how he was not allowed under Virginia law to sit at the same table in a courtroom as a white attorney despite fighting in desegregated military units during the Korean War. He said his experiences growing up while facing racism during the Jim Crow era spurred him into politics.

“I was told, ‘You cannot be a member of the Richmond Bar Association, even though you passed the same test.’ I said, ‘There must be a reason for it.’ They said yes. I said, ‘What’s the reason?’ They said, ‘You’re Black.’ Well, you know, you can only take so much of that,” Wilder recalled.

Wilder also exhorted students who attended the awards luncheon alongside family, friends and well-wishers to get involved, even if it means getting in trouble.

“My slogan, ‘You can make democracy work,’ couldn’t be any more apropos today,” Wilder said. “You can make democracy work. You can demand what’s right, but you have to criticize what’s wrong. You can’t be afraid to do that and there will be those who will tell you that you will get in trouble.

“Well, if that’s the case, I’ve been in trouble my whole life.”

Media Contact

Bryan McKenzie

Assistant Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications