The gentlemanly voice of former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder seems out of touch with the screamers and shouters of today’s politics. Or is it? Wilder, 87, has some timely life lessons to share, as the first African-American elected governor of an American state (he served from 1990 to 1994) and the first African-American to be elected to the Virginia State Senate since Reconstruction — at a time when Virginia was more than 80 percent white. The grandson of slaves, Wilder had to attend Howard University to study law because African-Americans were banned from Virginia law schools. He comes to Lansing Monday to give the keynote address at the Lansing Center’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday luncheon.

The title of his speech is “Be the Change You Wish to See in the World.”

Many young people are terrified of getting into politics because it seems so dysfunctional and toxic.

I don’t blame them. However, you cannot complain about anything unless you’re willing to take a shot. The first advent of Africans to these shores was in 1619. In 2019 we’re celebrating 400 years, and yet it’s not a real celebration. We’ve had to go through any number of things. Has there been improvement? Yes. Can there be more? Yes. You can be a part of it.

How did you muster the confidence to run for state Senate and governor in a state that was overwhelmingly white?

I really got it at home, from my mother, who was a very bright lady. She used to say, ‘It doesn’t matter where you are today. Work and dream to better yourself tomorrow.’ My father’s parents were slaves. He never wanted to talk about it. It pained him to talk about it. And yet he had a brother two years older who went to medical school and became a doctor. His parents were slaves! So I said, ‘If he can do that, good Lord, these are not barriers to me.’ Virginia has the smallest concentration of people of color in the South, about 14 percent when I ran for governor. That meant I had to go and let people know what my positions were.

Americans want to move ahead. There are some who benefit by the divide, and that’s what we’ve got to guard against. I never thought the divide applied to me. I thought I could be anything I chose to be.

You succeeded in signing gun legislation in the home state of the NRA. (Virginia’s “one gun a month” law stayed in effect for 20 years before being repealed in 2012.) Why is it so hard to pass gun legislation today, even after so many mass shootings?

People misunderstand gun legislation.

You’re not trying to stop people from owning guns. But how many guns do you need?

It’s a money thing. You and I know that. We need to decide — do we want to go back to the West days when everyone has a sidearm strapped on? That’s not going to work.

Sensible legislation is always needed.

With the rise of highly partisan news outlets and other changes in the political landscape, would you still get into the public arena if you were 40 or 50 years younger?

I think so, and I hate to say that. You’d think that by this time, I’d have some sense. But I’ve enjoyed being in the public arena. I’ve learned that if you make your case, if you have a case, people will listen.

I was the only person of color in the Virginia state Senate when I was elected in 1969. I introduced a bill to have a holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King. It took me eight years to get it done. I’d get it passed in the Senate and the House would kill it. I’d get it passed in both the Senate and the House and the governor would veto it. I went through that whole process twice and two governors vetoed it.

But eventually, I was able to get Virginia to become the first state that had a legislative holiday for Dr. King, even before the federal government. That wasn’t just passed by my vote. I was able to understand why people were voting against it. I ended up having people who voted against it being patrons of the bill, along with me. It was a matter of education and information and understanding and seeing who you can get to your side.

Is public office the best platform for change?

This is one of the things King spoke of.

He said that increased numbers don’t necessarily mean too much because eventually you’ll find that numbers in a column add up to zero. We’ve got more elected officials of color than ever in the history of this country and we’re still complaining.

Why? It shows you that increased numbers don’t necessarily make the difference.

I’ve always believed in what I call the polity, the group of people who are affected by our laws, who make the decisions as to whether they should be changed or not, how they should be changed and to insist they should be changed. So, no, you don’t have to be in elected office.

People, particularly young people, need to demand what is right and criticize what is wrong, notwithstanding the perpetrator, their party, their color or anything else.

Many of the good ideas people give me credit for, I learned from the people. I used to ride buses and listen to people, go to the Wal-Mart. Stop, say hello, listen to them and see what they have on their minds. Hear it and use it.

Did you meet Dr. King? What do you admire most about him?

Well, one thing is that we’re close to the same age. Our birthdays are two days apart. [King would have turned 90 Dec. 15; Wilder turns 88 Thursday.]

He was a brilliant man — not just a theologian but a philosopher. I met him the first time in Petersburg, Virginia, when he came to speak at an event for Wyatt T. Walker [later one of King’s top strategists]. I went over to Virginia State and met with him, enjoyed the conversation.

What I admired most about him is that he never gave up on the need for education. He pushed it everywhere he went. It’s important that we keep on doing that. We have been arguing and talking about education for the last 50 years in terms of improvement, and yet we see our numbers falling. Fewer people are graduating in our schools in central cities.

Our graduates are not there. What are we doing wrong? Is it just money, or the way that money is being spent? Unfortunately, people don’t drill down into King’s message as much as they should. They remember ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Yes, but how? ‘One day we’ll get there.’ How? King was not all by himself. The NAACP, King, Malcolm X and others were all in the same boat. Their ways to reach the top may have been different, but the object is the same — to have uplift, to have education, to have perseverance, and to commit to doing it until we are successful.

To paraphrase what you said about your family, perhaps some people will hear you speak Monday and say to themselves, ‘If he did it, I can do it.’

I hope so. If you can do it in a state that was at the heart of the Confederacy, you can do it anywhere.

The annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Luncheon is presented by the Dr. Martin Luther King Commission Jr. of Mid-Michigan. The Commission works to support equality, diversity and social justice, focusing on the area’s pressing needs of literacy, youth violence, hunger, mentoring, education and community enrichment. The non-profit appointed body of volunteers supports a number of community service agencies and promotes youth initiatives, such as student essay and art contests, college scholarships and the annual 8-day Y-Achievers Cultural Immersion Transportation Study & College Tour for high school students. For more information, visit www.lansingmi.gov/942/MLK-Jr-Holiday-Commission.


Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday

Luncheon L. Douglas Wilder, keynote speaker 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon., Jan. 21 Lansing Center Tickets are $50 and are available at Lansing City Hall, 124 W. Michigan Ave., and East Lansing Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Rd. (517) 410-2998