Warwick’s George Wiley (1931-1973) compiled a record of service to his country which equals the sacrifices and service of his fellow hometowners, Nathanael and Christopher Greene. Like those men of the Revolutionary War generation, George, too, became a champion of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Whereas the Greenes took direct military action against Britain’s King George by snatching the scepter from a tyrant’s hand, George Wiley took direct action to ensure that the rights forged by the American Revolution were extended to those of the least station in American society, the poor.
Born in 1931 to a middle-class black family with a deeply held religious tradition, George A. Wiley excelled in academics and sports at Nelson W. Aldrich High School, winning a scholarship to URI, where he majored in chemistry and was a popular student leader. Next, he earned a graduate degree in organic chemistry at Cornell University. Following a post-graduate chemistry program at UCLA, he won a prestigious academic appointment at Syracuse University. George was a popular professor and a well-regarded research chemist, delivering important papers at national conferences and publishing articles in professional journals. As a scientist, who was also black, George broke many racial barriers in the academic community.
The late 1950’s and early 1960’s boiled with civil rights issues including public accommodations, racially segregated schools, and the denial of benefits to poverty-stricken people of all races. George began his career as a rights activist by organizing a chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.). After initial successes in Syracuse, he went on to become the number two leader of C.O.R.E in New York City under James Farmer.
Wiley soon moved to the front ranks of the Civil Rights Movement in the North, but when he was not tapped to succeed Farmer as the head of C.O.R.E., and that organization drifted towards black power, Wiley turned his attention to inter-racial issues of poverty–from political rights to economic rights. He became a principal founder of the National Welfare Rights Organization, a movement with chapters in cities all across the North and from coast to coast. His direct action strategies including behind-the-scenes negotiations and televised disruptions of the welfare system put him in endless struggles with governmental officials at all levels. Countless appearances before Congress to oppose the denial of legal benefits under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program kept Wiley in the news during the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
Like the Civil Rights Movement, which achieved certain obvious goals and then lost momentum, Wiley’s mild reforms to the welfare system also caused the movement to pause. While searching for another approach to combat anti-poverty, George Wiley died in 1973 at the age of forty-two in a family boating accident. One of his pet causes, the extension of basic health care for the poor, has just been achieved, while his anti-poverty ideas and strategies are carried forward in Rhode Island today by the George Wiley Center of Pawtucket. Author Nick Kotz has chronicled his short but eventful life in a biography entitled A Passion for Equality: George A. Wiley and the Movement (1977).
Albert T. Klyberg, L.H.D.