Civil Rights Movement Icon: Dr. Virgil Wood

CH 9 logoRacial Justice Possible Through Economic Justice If We Find Common Cause

Bob Driehaus

WCPO Channel 9 | Cincinnati, Ohio
3:00 AM, Jan 19, 2015

9:38 AM, Jan 21, 2015

CINCINNATI – Dr. Virgil A. Wood , a former lieutenant to Dr. Martin Luther King, has carried the Civil Rights banner for more than 50 years and counting. A spry 84, he’s looking forward, and he sees hope.

Rather than falling into despair over events like the killing of unarmed young black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York at the hands of police, Wood thinks common cause will bring people of all races together in America.

The great equalizer, he told WCPO, is an erosion of the middle class that has impoverished many white Americans along with minority Americans.

“They are now in the soup with the rest of us,” Wood said. “There are more people in need of what Dr. King’s work could help.”

Wood visited Cincinnati to present the inaugural Dr. Virgil Alexander Wood Dissertation Award to a 2013 graduate of Union Institute & University. The winner was the Rev. Gregory Bailey for his dissertation “King’s pursuit of Economic Justice: Correcting Capitalism through a Beloved Economy.”

Dr Virgil Wood

Dr. Virgil Wood, 84, worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo courtesy of

Union offers the only Ph.D. in the Tri-State with a concentration in King studies and one of only a handful in the country. The degree was created at Wood’s urging.

Wood led the Lynchburg (Va.) Improvement Association, a unit of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Blue Hill Christian Center of Boston’s Roxbury community. He worked closely with King as a member of the national executive board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

He said he debated with King in those days about the focus of the movement. While King led the movement to lobby for President Johnson’s Great Society projects – the establishment of Medicare, food stamps, welfare and the like – Wood pushed for “a march on Wall Street,” arguing that economic justice would only come through having a seat at the table with top financiers.

“King said to me, ‘You know we can’t do that now. We’re already set for our March on Washington.’ But I think he almost had a premonition that the economic work would have to be taken up by others, and that’s what I’ve tried to do,” he said.

Wood has watched with frustration as wealth in the country has concentrated at the top and middle class families have found it more and more difficult to find living-wage jobs.

“We’ve created the kind of society where we are squishing the people into the bottom ranks,” he said.

And people of good will, regardless of race or religion, have an opportunity to help. “Religious leaders can answer the question when green pastures turn brown, ‘What must shepherds do?’ All religions can confront this problem together without getting lost in theology,” he said. “What’s broke out there needs to be fixed.”

Wood said Americans need to recognize economic injustice transcends race, religion and gender.

“Let’s ask the question how have we allowed this to go on unabated? What might have happened if we had been engaged? When we come out of our silos, we come with the understanding of how we can cooperate,” he said.

Race relations have a long way to go, Wood said.

“We’ve advanced on some things and regressed in some other things,” he said. “In the long view, the Civil War occurred 150 year ago, and there are people who don’t know it’s all over,” he said with a smile.

He wants to highlight the partnerships between white and black leaders throughout modern history as examples of cooperation that can inspire justice going forward. He cited Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas; Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk; and George Wallace and Martin Luther King, Sr., who came to Wallace after a would-be assassin paralyzed the governor, and told him they were brothers and that he loved him.

“It’s in the hearts of lot of people, but they have to come out of hiding,” Wood said. “We need to understand that there is another America that is in the shadows, a beautiful America.”

Union Institute, the Cincinnati-based online higher education institution, is one of the few universities in the country and the only Tri-state school to offer a Ph.D . with a concentration in Martin Luther King Jr. studies. Candidates for the doctorate of philosophy are expected to expand upon “a central idea, ideal, or political/policy/leadership approach associated with the intellectual and creative legacy of Dr. King,” according to Union’s description of the program, which was created at Wood’s urging.

The winner of the inaugural was the Rev. Gregory Bailey for his dissertation “King’s pursuit of Economic Justice: Correcting Capitalism through a Beloved Economy.”

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