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Historian and civil rights activist Roger Wilkins

Historian and civil rights activist Roger Wilkins has written a new book Jefferson Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism (Beacon Press). Wilkins considers our founding fathers and their conflicting attitudes toward race and how it affects his own sense of patriotism. Wilkins is a professor of history at George Mason University, a Pulitzer-prize winner, and former Assistant Attorney General under President Johnson.


Other segments from the episode on June 28, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 28, 2001: Interview with Roger Wilkins; Interview with Sonia Braga; Review of Kenny Barron and Regina Carter's new album "Freefall."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Roger Wilkins discusses his new book and his views on
slavery in the Revolutionary era

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Next week we celebrate Independence Day.
Our Founding Fathers refused to be slaves to the English king, yet some of
them owned slaves. My guest Roger Wilkins writes about the Founding Fathers
from an African-American perspective in his new book "Jefferson's Pillow: The
Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism." He focuses on four
Virginians, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington and George

Wilkins writes, `They created a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to
the proposition that whites were, and should be, supreme. How is one to
understand a nation whose dreams the slave owners despoiled, even as they were
creating it.' Wilkins is descended from enslaved Virginians. He's a
professor of history at George Mason University, a longtime civil rights
activist, and a former member of The Washington Post editorial page staff.

Let's start with Thomas Jefferson. As the primary author of the Declaration
of Independence, he wrote, `We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all
men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable
rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'

Mr. GEORGE WILKINS (Author): That thought was not original to Jefferson.
George Mason had written it much less elegantly in the Virginia Declaration of
Rights, which he had produced at the Virginia convention just a few weeks
before. The declaration was drafted and adopted in Philadelphia. So it was
a thought abroad among the rebellious colonists, but Jefferson did it very
elegantly. But none of these Virginians thought that they were writing about
black people, about women, about Indians. As a matter of fact, from looking
at their lives and looking at the origins of their rebellion, it's pretty
clear that their aim, those words were aimed at the king and the aristocrats
around him and his counsel. And when they said, `All men are created equal,'
they were saying, `We colonists are not the country bumpkins you're treating
us as. We're not simply economic ciphers to be used for the great maw of the
English economy. We are English gentlemen, just as you are. We are your
equals. Don't treat us as inferiors.' It was not their intention to drop a
cloak of equality down over either their wives or of the black people they

GROSS: You quote one historian who said, "Ironically, it was slavery that
made Jefferson free of his tedious, unremunerative law practice and enabled
him to devote his energies to American freedom." What's your reaction to

Mr. WILKINS: Oh, I think it's absolutely true. Their lives were made
possible--their greatness was made possible by slavery. The period from 1765,
the Stamp Act crisis, to 1775, where the shots were fired at Lexington and
Concord, John Adams called the real American Revolution. And that is the time
when many of the colonists changed their minds about who they were. They'd
all been born as Englishmen and they loved England and they loved the crown.
And in that 10-year period because of the contention, because of the
overbearing policies of the king and his counsel, because of the resistance
efforts that the colonists mounted, because of the politics they did--the
writing, the studying, the meeting, the organizing, the developing of
institutions, and finally the development of a Continental Congress and a
Continental Army--all of this took time to read, to study, to discuss. None
of this would've been possible for them but for the wealth and the leisure
that their slaves provided for them, so that clearly was an accurate

And I think it's kind of funny, Jefferson did start out as a real estate
lawyer, and having practiced law myself, I think of real estate law being the
least poetic of any profession I can think of and yet Jefferson turned out to
be the poet of the revolution.

GROSS: George Washington is one of the Founding Fathers. You write about him
and you say he didn't want blacks to join the army. Did he give reasons why?
Or did he just assume everybody would agree with him?

Mr. WILKINS: Well, Washington was--started out as a kind of an ordinary
Virginia aspirant to wealth. He was aquisitive. He needed--he wanted
land--that was how he acquired wealth. In addition, he acquired wealth by
marrying a rich widow--he did that. And you made your land productive by
using slaves. And he thought--and slave owners did not like the idea of
having black people going around with guns because they were always worried
about slave rebellions. And so when he took command of the army at Cambridge
in 1775, he found an army in which blacks were already fighting because,
contrary to the way we teach history, blacks were present in every battle of
the Revolution, virtually, and certainly they were at Lexington, Concord and
Bunker Hill. And, well, that alarmed Washington, the Southerner, now in
Massachusetts, and he said he didn't want them in the army but manpower needs
prevailed. And so, you see, Washington, in 1775, as a very conventional,
Southern slave owner and with deeply racist instincts.

GROSS: Do you think that writing your new book, "Jefferson's Pillow," has
helped you resolve your feelings about being an African-American patriot?

Mr. WILKINS: Well, the--I started out as a patriot, and that's the
interesting thing. I grew up around civil rights giants. My uncle Roy ran
the NAACP for 20 years, and that was his--basically the NAACP was his life's
work. Thurgood Marshall was like an extra uncle to me and was, when I grew
up, a boss, a friend, a colleague at the Justice Department, a mentor, and
finally just a dear, dear friend. Martin King and I worked together and so
forth. I was kind of the head of the federal government's--certainly part
of the civil rights wing of the federal government in the '60s.

So--and I realized that the work that we were doing was patriotic work, that
it wasn't just the interests of black people that we were pursuing, but the
interests of American justice and we were expanding the meaning of the
American Constitution in order to enlarge the structures of opportunity for
everybody. So--and that's been the work of my life and I have embraced it.
But I felt--and then--and I knew Thurgood was a thoroughgoing patriot and I
loved him dearly. And I--until I--but I never was easy. Even though I knew I
was a patriot, I was never easy with the word patriot until I began to resolve
my feelings about the revolution and also about slavery. And, Yeah. I have
to tell you that, having done this work, I embrace the revolution. I even
embrace these four slave owning founders--well, I embrace three of them. I
find it a little hard to embrace Jefferson, but the other three I embrace
pretty wholeheartedly.

GROSS: Why is it that you feel you can embrace Washington even though he
didn't want blacks to join the army during the Revolutionary War, but you
still have a hard time embracing Jefferson? They were both slave owners,
Jefferson did write, `All men are created equal,' even though he was a slave
owner. Why are you having such a hard time with Jefferson and not Washington?

Mr. WILKINS: I think it's the difference in the moral it's--the moral
content of their character, as Martin King would put it. Jefferson was
obviously a brilliant man and had a great talent for writing and his writing
could soar when his passions were engaged, but over his lifetime you don't get
any sense of a moral growth. You get, sometimes, moral language. He was able
to talk about his belief that someday blacks would be free and he was able to
talk about the fruits of freedom for everybody, but he could also pan a
terribly racist greed, as he did in notes on the state of Virginia. And in
the end he never--he just indulged himself by leaving Washington's Cabinet,
and indulged himself by buying all this French stuff--wine, furniture and so
forth--got into debt, had to sell slaves. And his slaves were scattered to
the wind because of his debts when he died.

Washington, on the other hand, grew from a fellow who had only wealth and
dandy aspirations as a young man to a man who shouldered, willingly, the
heaviest burdens the society could lay on him and he did it with a strength of
character that is just astounding. And he did it decade after decade. And at
the same time he showed moral growth. He turned against slavery. First he
became a good slave owner; that is he wouldn't sell slaves because he thought
it was cruel, even though that meant that the slave population at Mt. Vernon
would grow and he would just go deeper and deeper into debt because Mt.
Vernon was no longer, with all those slaves, a profitable proposition. And
then at the end of his life he--six months before he died he changed his will
and he freed the slaves. But you--freed the slaves at his death--after his

In Washington you see a man who brought less talent, but more strength of
character, and a deep moral sensibility. You feel in Washington's life a
mulling of character issues that goes on and on and on. In Jefferson's life,
you feel a deviousness, a craftiness, a self-regard, and in the end, though
the revolution would not have had the frills and flourishes that it had
because of Jefferson, you don't, at least in the period which I look at, and
that is up to the death of Washington, you do not sense the kind of moral
growth that you sensed in Washington.

GROSS: My guest is Roger Wilkins. His new book is called "Jefferson's
Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Roger Wilkins and his new book is called "Jefferson's
Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism."

You were one of the leaders in America of the fight against apartheid in South
Africa. Did some of the documents of the Founding Fathers--the Founding
Fathers about who you're so ambivalent because they were slave owners--did
some of their documents kind of help you in that fight and help you find the
right words and all of that?

Mr. WILKINS: The words of the Founding Fathers and their works have helped
me my entire life. Thurgood taught me, when I first worked for him as a law
student, a reverence for the Constitution of the United States. And therefore
I got early on a deep interest in James Madison--and throughout my lifetime
those words. But in the Free South Africa movement, I led demonstrations,
along with my colleagues, in front of the South African Embassy. And at
times, it was really tough. Not many people there. It was cold,
rainy--things like that. And one day I was doing it and I was feeling
particularly silly and people were driving home along Massachusetts Avenue
looking at us like we were a bunch of nuts and I felt awkward and exposed, and
I said to myself, `What's wrong with you? You gotta--you're leading these
people. Why are you feeling this way? And all you're doing is exercising
your rights as a citizen under the Constitution of the United States and
you're an active citizen, and you're doing things on behalf of people who half
a world a way--who, if they tried to do it in their capital for themselves
would at least end up and jail and perhaps would be killed.'

And I had not studied Mason and the Declaration of Rights at that point but it
was Mason's spirit. It's the things that he wrote, the things that Madison
wrote, the constitutional structure that those founders created that made me
so sure, as I marched up and down that street and did what I did, that these
were fundamental rights of an American citizen and, by God, I'm proud to be
doing that and those people who are passing in cars and comfort to their homes
out on the Maryland suburbs were jerks if they didn't understand the glories
of American citizenship. These things are my legacies as an American citizen
that I owe to these founders, including the slave owning founders. Maybe they
didn't expect that some descendant of slaves would use these rights in that
way but they knew that they were letting loose in the world a ground for
creative citizenship. That's what they had in mind. That's what I've tried
to live. And I have to be grateful for that bequest. It's made my life--it's
made the kind of life that I've lived possible.

GROSS: You mentioned that you've learned a reverence for the constitution
from Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was like an uncle to you. I
think it's interesting that you learned your reverence from somebody who, you
know, was such an important African-American figure in American history. In
other words, you weren't learning your reverence from a white person who you
would imagine wouldn't really understand the kind of ambivalence you feel
about the Founding Fathers. You learned it from Thurgood Marshall who, I'm
sure, could understand your ambivalence and probably felt a lot of it, too.
Did you talk about this kind of thing with him?

Mr. WILKINS: I didn't talk about anything with Thurgood except what he
wanted me to do when I was working with him.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. WILKINS: But I watched him and I watched his life. And I listened to
the way he would talk about the Constitution when he was shaping an argument
or when he was arguing with somebody on the telephone or whatever we happened
to be doing and I understood that he loved this Constitution. And there were
white men on the staff, Jack Greenberg and Bill Taylor, who loved the
Constitution just as deeply, but Thurgood was the mentor and the boss of us
all and then the fact that he became a lifelong friend just happened
to--embedded those values in me.

GROSS: Do you find, as a professor, that you have a hard time convincing some
of your African-American students that the Founding Fathers are worth caring
about or that some of the, you know, founding documents of the United States
are worth caring about?

Mr. WILKINS: There's really an interesting connection. I teach in the way
Thurgood taught me to teach and that is when I teach black students or white
students things, I bring to the teaching the experiences of my life, like
marching in front of the South African Embassy and suddenly realizing that
what I'm doing is a birthright from these founders, many of whom were slave
holders, and feeling warmed by that. And when I tell that story, black and
white students get it. They really get it--that these rights are real things,
real values in their lives, should they choose to become active citizens, and
they came from these people. So, no, I don't find student resistance when I'm
really able to put it across in vivid ways.

GROSS: Do you know if any of your ancestors, if any of your family were
slaves at the time of the Founding Fathers?

Mr. WILKINS: I don't. I know that my father's family was enslaved in
Mississippi in the middle of the 19th century--as early as the 19th century,
but beyond that we can't go. My mother's family I suspect was enslaved much
earlier because my great grandfather, her grandfather, was--lived in Virginia
in the early part of the 19th century, and he was light-skinned, free and
literate, which meant that there was probably quite a long history before
that. And my guess would be that he was the third or fourth generation in the
family. So, yes, I suspect that part of my family was here during the

GROSS: Roger Wilkins, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. WILKINS: I've enjoyed this very much, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Roger Wilkins is the author of "Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding
Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism." He's a professor of history at
George Mason University. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new CD of duets featuring pianist
Kenny Baron and violinist Regina Carter. Also Brazilian actress Sonia Braga;
her breakthrough 1985 film, "Kiss of the Spider Woman," is returning to

(Soundbite of music)

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Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Review: Pianist Kenny Barron and violinist Regina Carter team
up for the new CD "Freefall"

Veteran jazz pianist Kenny Barron usually works in bands with bass and drums,
but he also recorded informal duets with Stan Getz and others. Violinist
Regina Carter's records lean toward mainstream or commercial jazz, but she
also spent six years playing new music in the String Trio of New York. Kenny
Barron and Regina Carter have now recorded as a duo. Jazz critic Kevin
Whitehead says it's a good match.

(Soundbite of music by Kenny Barron and Regina Carter)


No setting is more congenial to close improvising than the duo, each player
has only one person to listen to with no distractions, and partners can read
each other quickly enough to deal with unsignaled turns and side trips. At
its best, the Kenny Barron-Regina Carter CD, "Freefall," has just that
looseness and spontaneity. They largely sidestep the echoes of European
classical music you might expect with piano and violin.

On Johnny Hodge's 1941 romp, "Squaty Roo," they're more interested in classic
jazz sounds, a rolling barrelhouse bass from the piano, and the bluesy grease
of swing-era fiddler ...(unintelligible).

(Soundbite of music by Kenny Barron and Regina Carter)

WHITEHEAD: Pianist Kenny Barron is first among equals here. He's got about
three decades more experience than Regina Carter and is never at a loss for
ideas, where she runs on fumes once in a while. This meeting was Barron's
idea. He's very good at drawing her out, and he revels in the extra demands
on himself without bass or drums for support. But violin doesn't vanish when
the spotlight's on piano. Carter often chimes in with her own harmony parts,
staying in the picture and keeping up the dialogue.

(Soundbite of music by Kenny Barron and Regina Carter)

WHITEHEAD: At 70 minutes, the CD "Freefall" could stand some pruning, it
could've lost a couple of sappier ballads, including "Fragile" by Sting, but
they make amends. The album's centerpiece and title track is its riskiest
venture--an eight-minute free improvisation. It works because they listen to
each other as closely as on the written pieces.

(Soundbite of music by Kenny Barron and Regina Carter)

WHITEHEAD: Major label jazz records--this one's on Verve--tend to be
overproduced nowadays, especially when heavily promoted musicians like Regina
Carter are involved. So it's surprising "Freefall" is as fluid and
gimmick-free as it is. The lack of a high concept like the lack of a
conventional rhythm section frees Carter and Kenny Barron to go where they
will. They make the most of what's missing.

(Soundbite of music by Kenny Barron and Regina Carter)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is based in Chicago. He reviewed "Freefall,"
featuring Kenny Barron and Regina Carter.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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