Back in 1970 the idea of a black person being elected president of the United States sat somewhere between flying cars and robot servants in the realm of futuristic possibility. The ink was barely dry on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Supreme Court had only recently ruled in 1967 that laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional, and there were just 10 black members of the House of Representatives and one black member of the U.S. Senate. A black president was still very much the domain of science fiction.
But civil rights activist Roy Wilkins thought Americans electing their first black president could very well be a reality by the year 2000. His prediction appeared in a 1970 book edited by Irvin A. Falk called Prophecy for the Year 2000 which included futuristic ideas from a number of notable figures. At that time, Wilkins was executive director of the NAACP.
Wilkins touches on a number of different issues that he saw as hindrances to progress, but he remained optimistic that should the "tremendous problem of education" be addressed "in the next 30 to 100 years" then the country will be greater for it. He explains that, "it took us almost 200 years to elect a Catholic President, and presumably it will take us a few years to elect a Jewish President." With the nation's recent progress, a black president was not "impossible."
An excerpt from the book appears below.
I think probably what we will have in this country (if our progress in human relations between whites and blacks is going to be progressively better than it has been in the past 40 years) by the year 2000 is a great diminution in the kind of racial conflict that we now have. We will have more unity between the races. I think we're going to evolve, not melt together. We have a distinctive contribution to make to each other.
In the United States in the year 2000, I think it will be no phenomenon to see Negroes occupying all kinds of positions on all kinds of levels. There will be interracial marriage, and people won't talk about it as such anymore. They'll talk about it from another point of view: is the person a good person or a bad person?
This, of course, means that the separatism which we know today, initiated, I'm sorry to say, by a good many people whom I regard as misguided among the Negroes, will give way to a mutually respectful coexistence. Each one will respect the other's religion, and the other's race.
I regard this period in our human relations here in the United States as an interlude. I think the young Negro militants, so called, are trying to find themselves, and as soon as they do, then they will get back on the track of being human beings rather than being black human beings. It took us almost 200 years to elect a Catholic President, and presumably it will take us a few years to elect a Jewish President.
We'll elect a Negro President, and I don't conceive it to be impossible. It is not in the dim future. It is not a hundred years away; it is not 200 years away. It is much nearer than that. As far as race relations abroad go, I don't think Rhodesia can last, and I don't think South Africa can last in its present attitude. It simply isn't possible, no matter how well armed, and how well controlled the politics of the country happen to be by a numerical minority. It is simply not in the cards for that minority to control the majority forever. There will be either a bloody upheaval and a long struggle to the death or there will be some kind of mediation and negotiation. Rhodesia and South Africa cannot last.
In this country, we can say confidently that most of the white majority knows very little, basically, about the Negroes, and a great many Negroes, many more than you would suppose, are totally ignorant about white people and about the ways to deal with them. The belligerence and arrogance of some of the black nationalists now is a natural reaction of persons who try to cover up the fact that they are unable to deal with other people.
I think prejudice can only be overcome by knowledge, by association and by a regard for people as people, irrespective of their color. What needs to take place in the next 30 to 100 years is a tremendous program of education. People are all together, and the big problem before us is learning to live together. People are people. It isn't a question of white versus black. It is good versus bad. And if we can see that, we are on our way.
Roy Wilkins died in 1981, so he didn't have the opportunity to see Barack Obama elected as the nation's first black president.
This post originally appeared at Smithsonian.com.