In his home state of Virginia, he was the first black state senator since Reconstruction, the first black governor in the U.S. and the first popularly elected mayor in Richmond since the 1940s.
On Thursday, Wilder visited UNC’s campus to present the Deil S. Wright Lecture, “Leading the Way with Courage,” sharing with community members and students the importance of fortitude in the face of diversity.
He called it “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”
“Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps isn’t exclusive to any sub-people in a group,” Wilder said. “It’s anybody. When people said I’d never get elected — when they said I wouldn’t make it — I said, ‘Why?’”
He was the seventh of eight children and grew up in a segregated neighborhood in Richmond, Va. He served in the Korean War, got his law degree after returning to the U.S. and then launched his political career, securing a state Senate seat in his first election. He started his service as lieutenant governor in 1986 and governor in 1990.
During his time as governor, Wilder advocated for reducing the size of government and balancing the budget, passing a comprehensive bond package that was widely supported.
“I knew that if I could show proficiency and efficiency, I could get the people of Virginia to go along with me,” he said in an interview.
Wilder then returned to his childhood home to become Richmond’s mayor — he recognized that local deadlock and problems were just as important as state affairs.
“Wilder knew where the action was taking place. He was certainly a catalyst,” said Jordan Paschal, a first-year master’s of public administration student.
Eric Reese, a second-year MPA student, said building local change is an important function of government.
“What meant most to me (from the lecture) was thinking through what the responsibility is of the next generation — to continue building on what others have done in the past while also leaving something behind that matters,” he said.
Wilder said he was an effective leader because he showed people he could act on his promises.
He said his proudest feat in office was creating Virginia’s rainy-day fund, a reserve account, and putting a mandate for it in the state’s constitution. He said people expected a black Democrat to be fiscally irresponsible and unwilling to save money.
“I said, let me show you that it’s not true,” he said.
He said he’s concerned about the cultural divide that persists in American society and that the public and politicians don’t talk about it.
“We’ve got to fight very hard to make certain that we don’t slip into widening the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’” he said.
He said he thinks diversity in politics has improved, but people should be elected based on how they perform and not based on their race or gender.
“What did you do? Who are you representing? Yourself, or something else? That question needs to be answered before we start complaining more about the lack of people in high positions,” he said.