“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.
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 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.”