Tribute to Prof. Roger Wilkins. North Plaza (now Roger Wilkins Plaza), Fairfax Campus, Oct. 12, 2017
Thank you for joining us in celebrating the amazing life of Roger Wilkins and the indelible mark he left on George Mason University. Thank you especially to his wife, Prof. Patricia King, and his family, for allowing us to honor Roger this way and for being with us today. And thank you to the members of our faculty and administration who advocated for the naming of this space.
I am proud that the spot where we now stand, the most central and symbolic space on our home campus, will from this day forward be known as Roger Wilkins Plaza.
Professor Roger Wilkins is more than deserving of this honor from a university he did so much to build. And the form and location for this recognition, as I will explain, could simply not be more fitting.
I’m sure you are well acquainted with Roger’s remarkable biography. His schooling started in a one-room segregated schoolhouse. Yet he managed to navigate segregation, graduate from college and law school, practice law, serve in the Kennedy administration and at the young age of 33 be sworn in by President Lyndon Johnson as Assistant Attorney General—the highest rank achieved by an African American in his time.
Roger went on to pen editorials for the Washington Post during one of the most intense presidential crises in American history. A year later he received the Pulitzer Prize along with Bernstein, Woodward and others for exposing the Watergate scandal that forced President Nixon’s resignation.
In the late 1980s, he arrived at Mason, where he would teach for two decades.
We were so fortunate to land him.
When Roger came to George Mason, few knew much about this fledgling university in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. Roger was one of the intellectual pioneers who helped put this university on the map.
But, most importantly, he helped inspire and shape the thinking of hundreds if not thousands of Mason students. Education was a passion.
In an essay on “Race and Opportunity,” he wrote, “Public education is our most powerful tool in the struggle to achieve equity for poor kids, and for minority kids who have not only been shortchanged, but systematically deprived of their right to equal opportunity.”
That he would choose to carry out his academic work at a public university that serves a beautifully diverse student body and boasts no performance gaps among ethnic groups seems quite appropriate.
One of our goals as a university is to help young people grow as engaged citizens who can make a positive difference. This is a theme that ran deep in Roger’s teaching and his attitudes toward leadership and social change.
In his Charles Thompson Lecture at Howard University he highlighted the work of the leaders of the Civil Right Movement: “The fact is,” he said, “they did what they were supposed to do when they were here. We are here now. It is our time in history. This is what we are supposed to do. This is what we must do if we are not to fail the giants who went before us as well as the children who are coming after us.”
Many of his students today look up to Professor Wilkins as the giant who went before them and whom they are working hard not to fail.
As a scholar, Roger devoted a great part of his writing to exploring the profound contradictions in the founding of the American Republic and their meaning for African Americans. How could it be, he asked, that the very individuals who established the principles of equality and personal liberty that underpin our political system—including, of course, the namesake of the very university where he taught—also owned and exploited hundreds of men, women and children during their lifetimes? How come the very people who didn’t hesitate to fight the mightiest empire of their time in the name of natural, inherent and inalienable human rights were unable or unwilling to share the gift of freedom with the people they enslaved and who afforded them their own wealth and “pursuit of happiness?” How are today’s African Americans to interpret that national founding narrative, to develop the sense of patriotic allegiance that is expected of them? As current events illustrate, these questions continue to be painfully relevant.
Roger wrote in the introduction of his 2002 book, “Jefferson’s Pillow”—“that however noble their accomplishments, Jefferson and his fellow Virginians George Washington, George Mason, and James Madison celebrated freedom while stealing the substance of life from the people they ‘owned’. Yet they also created the country that gives me, the descendant of slaves and slave owners, much of the context for my existence, the freedom that I cherish and the democratic citizenship that I have used relentlessly for the past half century.”
Every time he contemplated the monuments dedicated to Jefferson, Washington, and, I suppose, the George Mason statue right outside his office, he wrote he was in awe of the conundrum they represented to him and the deep conflict they “laid on his soul.”
In 1990 he spoke at Columbia University during the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. That day, as he talked about the First Amendment in the beautiful World Room of the journalism building, he wrote he had felt his Americanness more deeply than he ever had before.
He wondered what his 18th-century Virginia ancestors would have thought if they had seen him, in that room, speak about individual rights or preside, as he had a few years before, over the deliberations of the Pulitzer Prize board. He wondered what the Founders might have thought if they could see that the freedoms they fought for were not only still being celebrated but had been at least partially afforded to people of all races and backgrounds. “One would hope,” he wrote, “that after getting over their initial shock, they would be deeply pleased.”
The public space we are naming today is the heart of our university, and the space where every day of the week people of all backgrounds and persuasions take full advantage of their First Amendment rights. It also is where the George Mason statue was erected. If anyone would have gotten a kick out of this historic collision in one space of these two names—Mason and Wilkins, Wilkins and Mason—these two distant points on that ever-bending arc of history, that would have been Roger himself.
I can only wonder what Roger and George might have thought if they could take a walk down Wilkins Plaza together and contemplate Mason’s statue. I am pretty sure that, after getting over their initial shock, they would be deeply pleased.