Wilkins, Roy 1901–1981
Roy Wilkins 1901–1981
Civil rights leader, journalist
Roy Wilkins presided over the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during the crucial years of the civil rights struggle in the United States. Wilkins, who died in 1981, was executive director of the NAACP from 1955 until 1977 and a high-ranking member of the organization for two decades before that. During his many years with the NAACP, he helped to expand it from a membership of about 25,000 to almost half a million people, with an annual budget that exceeded $3.6 million. With his help, the NAACP became the most important and most powerful association for minorities in America.
Himself a grandson of slaves but a college graduate and trained journalist, Wilkins felt that the most productive route for social change was through the court system and the United States Constitution. Under his direction, the NAACP funded countless lawyers who attacked racial segregation and prejudice through legal channels. New York Times correspondent Paul Delaney wrote that Wilkins “was regarded as a solid leader, consistent, stable and thoughtful. He was respected by presidents and working-class blacks alike.... Intellectually, he was far ahead of some other leaders in grasping the dynamics of the times and in his knowledge of the country, its institutions and how to exploit them for the welfare of his constituency.”
Like many other black men born at the turn of the century, Wilkins faced a bleak future. He was bom on August 30, 1901, to William and Mayfield Wilkins. Both of his parents were college graduates, and his father had trained for the Methodist ministry. William Wilkins could find no suitable work in Holly Springs, Mississippi—his hometown—so he moved his young family to St. Louis, Missouri. There, the only job he could find was tending a brick kiln.
When Roy was four, his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving three small children. His father sent the youngsters farther north, to St. Paul, Minnesota, where they lived with a maternal aunt and her husband. Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Williams were therefore the people Roy Wilkins remembered as parents. His uncle instilled in all of the children the idea that education and moral rectitude would help them to overcome prejudice.
Few blacks lived in St. Paul at the time. Wilkins grew up in an integrated neighborhood and attended an integrated
Born August 30, 1901, in St. Louis, MO; died of kidney failure and heart problems, September 8, 1981, in New York, NY; son of William (a brick kiln worker) and Mayfield (Edmondson) Wilkins; married Aminda Ann Badeau (a former assistant commissioner of the New York City Welfare Department), September 15, 1929. Education : University of Minnesota, A.B., 1923. Religion : African Methodist Episcopal.
Kansas City Call, Kansas City, MO, 1923-31, began as reporter, became managing editor. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), New York City, assistant to executive secretary, 1931-34; editor of the Crisis (association’s monthly magazine), 1934-49; acting executive secretary, 1949; administrator for internal affairs, 1949-55; executive secretary (title later changed to executive director), April 11, 1955-July 1977.
Selected awards: Spingarn Medal from NAACP, 1964; Freedom House Award, 1967; Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal, 1968; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1969; Zale Award, 1973; congressional gold medal, 1984; more than 30 honorary degrees. A Roy Wilkins Memorial was constructed in St. Paul, MN.
high school, where he served as editor of the school newspaper. After graduating from Mechanic Arts High in 1919, he was accepted at the University of Minnesota. While a student there, he helped to pay his tuition and other expenses by working in a slaughterhouse and, in the summers, as a Pullman train car waiter. He majored in sociology in college, but journalism was a strong second interest. Even with jobs and a full schedule of classwork, he managed to find time to serve as the night editor of the Minnesota Daily, the college newspaper, and the St. Paul Appeal, a weekly for black readers.
Even in Minnesota the ugly wounds of racism made their mark. After hearing of the lynching of a black man in Duluth, Wilkins entered an oratorical contest at his college and delivered a stirring anti-lynching speech that won first prize. The incident remained in his mind when he moved south after college to serve as a reporter—and later a managing editor—of the Kansas City Call, a prestigious black weekly.
In 1974, Wilkins told Ebony : “It became apparent to me at a very early age that the Negro population in this country was such a small minority that we had to study our approaches very carefully. The word today is ’powerlessness,’ but we had even less power in those early days. We had no vote in the South. No political influence. No standing whatsoever in the courts. No legal protection. At one time, the U.S. Supreme Court was actually considered as our enemy. If you decided to really fight back, you had to be prepared to die.... If we had chosen the path of violence 40 or 50 years ago, we would have committed genocide on ourselves.”
Wilkins, who had joined the NAACP as a collegian, decided that the best way to change the system was to fight it from within. First he used the pages of the Kansas City Call to denounce “Jim Crow” laws that everywhere segregated blacks and denied them use of the best public facilities. He called upon his black readership to register to vote and then to use the power of the ballot box to remove the most racist politicians from office. A 1930 campaign headed by Wilkins and the Call to unseat U.S. senator Henry J. Allen, for instance, was successful and became a harbinger of the political advances to come for Southern blacks.
Wilkins’s work on the campaign against Allen brought the passionate young editor to the attention of Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP. White offered Wilkins a job as an aide in the NAACP’s New York City offices. It was not a position to be taken lightly in 1931. Wilkins’s first assignment was to go into Mississippi to investigate working conditions on a federally-funded river management project. Knowing that he would either be lynched or run out of the state if he were discovered to be with the NAACP, Wilkins donned a poor man’s clothes and went to seek work with the project. He earned ten cents an hour, lived in the floorless tents provided for the black laborers, and paid the inflated prices for basic foods at company stores. He also took notes on the conditions in preparation for his return to New York.
In 1932 the NAACP published Wilkins’s report, entitled Mississippi Slave Labor. The report went to Congress, prompting a federal investigation of the levee labor camps and an improvement in conditions for the workers. Wilkins quickly became an important administrator in the fast-growing NAACP and a favorite of executive secretary White as well as the rank-and-file members.
The NAACP was devoted to ending segregation in America by any means. Wilkins showed an acute ability to prioritize objectives for the organization as he moved up in its ranks. Beginning in 1934, he led dozens of demonstrations against what he saw as the most critical issue for blacks—indiscriminate lynching. His first arrest for demonstrating came at a National Conference on Crime: he protested against the U.S. attorney general for not including lynching on the list of crimes to be considered at the conference. In his later years, Wilkins told a younger generation that his first responsibility as an executive of the NAACP was keeping his people alive. All other advances would follow in time. According to Albin Krebs in the New York Times, Wilkins “never won passage of one of his ’dream bills,’ a Federal anti-lynching bill, but, in no small part because of the educational and propaganda activities of the NAACP, lynchings became uncommon as the years passed.”
Also in 1934 Wilkins became editor of the NAACP monthly magazine, the Crisis. Its former editor, the esteemed black intellectual leader W. E. B. Du Bois, had vacated the post following an ideological break with the NAACP in the summer of that year. Du Bois had become a staunch advocate of a separatist approach to empowering blacks in America, while new leadership within the association was attempting to integrate blacks with whites in an equitable, tolerant, multicultural society. Wilkins feared that traditionalists who shared Du Bois’s philosophy would object to his taking over editorial duties for the Crisis. In addition, he wondered where he would find the time to do justice to the new assignment, since he was already doing the work of two other NAACP staff members who had been laid off at the height of the Great Depression. In spite of his reservations, though, Wilkins took on the additional responsibility—on what he thought was just a temporary basis. He ended up editing the magazine for fifteen years—and actually managed to both increase its readership and rid it of its growing debts.
Over most of the next two decades, Wilkins worked on the Crisis, lectured, and helped organize new chapters of the NAACP, stepping in briefly in 1949 as executive secretary while White took a leave of absence. One of the many landmark decisions in which Wilkins took a hand was the 1954 Brown us. Board of Education case heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. That case overturned the idea of “separate but equal” schooling and helped set the stage for the end of segregated restaurants, movie houses, buses, and even drinking fountains. Throughout the 1950s, Wilkins took part in demonstrations in the South and elsewhere to end “Jim Crow” practices. He always felt, though, that the real power for blacks lay in the vote and in the courts.
Wilkins told the New York Times : “The Negro has to be a superb diplomat and a great strategist. He has to parlay what actual power he has along with the good will of the white majority. He has to devise and pursue those philosophies and activities which will least alienate the white majority opinion. And that doesn’t mean that the Negro has to indulge in bootlicking. But he must gain the sympathy of the large majority of the American public. He must also seek to make an identification with the American tradition.”
When Walter White died in 1955, the board of directors of the NAACP unanimously voted Wilkins in as executive secretary. The position title was later changed to executive director. Wilkins thus became the leader of the nation’s largest civil rights organization, a group that numbered over a half million members during its height in the early 1960s. Wilkins took his association’s agenda to the White House from the days of President Harry Truman’s administration to those of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He helped to organize the historic march on Washington, D.C. in 1963 at which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. He presided over passage of the congressional Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, 1964, and 1965. As Krebs put it, “The Wilkins way was to work within the law, within the system, to achieve voting rights, integrated schools, fair housing laws, increased job opportunities and many other goals.”
The Reverend Jesse Jackson told Ebony that Wilkins’s cool head was appreciated amongst those in the front ranks of the civil rights struggle. “For years, while a lot of funny stuff was going down in the civil rights movement, Roy Wilkins and the NAACP were the steadying influence,” Jackson explained, adding, “[They were] always there, sort of like a compass providing direction on one hand and a whole lot of bail bond money on the other, and keeping a lot of us from getting wiped out by some mean crackers down South.”
As the 1960s progressed, however, many younger blacks became impatient with the rate of change in America and called for more militant steps. Black Power and black separatist movements formed that challenged the NAACP procedure of working with white people to improve social conditions for blacks. In his posthumously published autobiography Standing Fast, Wilkins argued against the isolationist doctrine of the Black Power movement. “I did not intend to let [them] sway the NAACP from its fundamental goal: the full participation of Negro Americans in all phases of American life.... The goal had always been to include the Negro in that mainstream, to create a new sense of dignity and personal worth, to secure equal opportunity.”
Wilkins stood firmly against these militant movements, and he encouraged the NAACP not to back them, either. By 1969 he was being vilified as an “Uncle Tom” by some blacks and even found himself on the assassination list of one revolutionary group. “No matter how endlessly they try to explain it,” Wilkins told Reader’s Digest, “the term ’black power’ means anti-white power. [It is] a reverse Mississippi, a reverse Hitler, a reverse Ku Klux Klan.”
Wilkins thus strove to keep the NAACP in a conservative, conciliatory—but by no means apathetic—stance. He also chose to keep his position as executive director year after year, even when high-ranking members of the organization asked him to step down. Wilkins never groomed a successor for his job and refused until 1976 even to court the idea of retirement. When he finally did leave his post in 1977, he was more or less forced to do so by the board of directors, who accused him off-the-record of mismanaging funds. Others supported Wilkins until the end, convinced that without his charismatic leadership, the NAACP would splinter into competing groups with separate directors.
Worries about insolvency and about mass defections never materialized, and the NAACP has continued to operate as the nation’s largest civil rights group. After his retirement, Wilkins lived quietly with his wife in New York City. His health had been good for many years following surgery for cancer in 1946, but he began to decline in 1980. He died September 9, 1981, of kidney failure aggravated by heart trouble. Wilkins was eulogized by his successor as executive director of the NAACP, Dr. Benjamin Hooks. Hooks told the New York Times : “Mr. Wilkins was a towering figure in American history and during the time he headed the NAACP. It was during this crucial period that the association was faced with some of its most serious challenges and the whole landscape of the black condition in America was changed, radically, for the better.” Jesse Jackson also praised Wilkins in the New York Times as “a man of integrity, intelligence and courage who, with his broad shoulders, bore more than his share of responsibility for our and the nation’s advancement.”
Wilkins’s lifelong devotion to civil rights was fueled by a passion for justice. As he stated in his autobiography, he sought to fight against “a deep, unreasoning, savagely cruel refusal by too many white people to accept a simple, inescapable truth—the only master race is the human race, and we are all, by the grace of God, members of it.” Years after his death, Wilkins remains one of the most respected voices in the battle for racial equality in the United States. He was the recipient of numerous awards, including the NAACP’s Spingarn medal; the Presidential Medal of Freedom, bestowed upon him by Lyndon Johnson in 1969; and the congressional gold medal, bestowed posthumously in 1984.
Talking It Over with Roy Wilkins: Selected Speeches and Writings, M & B Publishing, 1977.
(With Tom Mathews) Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins, Viking, 1982.
Wilkins, Roy, and Tom Mathews, Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins, Viking, 1982.
Young, Margaret, Black American Leaders, Watts, 1969.
Ebony, April 1974.
Jet, March 26, 1984; May 21, 1990.
Newsweek, July 14, 1975; June 12, 1978.
New York Times, September 9, 1981.
New York Times Magazine, September 28, 1969.
Reader’s Digest, January 1968.
Time, August 30, 1963; July 12, 1976; September 21, 1981.
"Wilkins, Roy 1901–1981." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/wilkins-roy-1901-1981
"Wilkins, Roy 1901–1981." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved July 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/wilkins-roy-1901-1981
Roy Wilkins (1901-1981) was one of the most important leaders in the civil rights struggle of African Americans.
Born Aug. 30, 1901, in St. Louis, Missouri, of struggling African American parents, Roy Wilkins received his bachelor of arts degree from the University of Minnesota in 1923. During his college career he served as secretary to the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), beginning a relationship which became his career. As managing editor of the Call, a militant African American weekly newspaper in Kansas City, he attracted the attention of the NAACP national leadership through vigorously opposing the reelection of a segregationist senator.
In 1931 Wilkins became assistant executive secretary at NAACP National Headquarters. His first assignment, to investigate charges of discrimination on a federally financed flood control project in Mississippi in 1932, led to congressional action for improvement. The first of his few arrests on behalf of equal rights occurred in 1934 when he picketed the U.S. attorney general's office for omitting the subject of lynching from a national conference on crime.
From 1934 to 1949 Wilkins served as editor of the Crisis, the official organ of the NAACP. He was chairman of the National Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization in 1949. This organization, composed of more than 100 national and local groups, was responsible for sending over 4,000 delegates to Washington in January 1950 to lobby for fair employment and other civil rights.
Wilkins became the NAACP's administrator of internal affairs in 1950, and in 1955 the Board of Directors unanimously elected him executive secretary. This was a postion he held until 1977. When Wilkins began, he played a key role in helping plan and implement ways to eliminate segregation on all fronts and advance African Americans to first-class citizenship. He conferred with presidents, congressmen, and Cabinet officials. Furthermore, Wilkins testified before congressional committees, appeared on television and radio, addressed innumerable groups, and wrote extensively for both the African American press and general publications.
An articulate speaker and accomplished writer and organizer, Wilkins condemned the idea that African Americans must earn their rights through good behavior. He emphatically stated that no American is required to earn rights because human rights come from God, and his citizenship rights come from the Constitution. In support of President John Kennedy's civil rights bill, he testified in 1963 that African Americans "are in a mood to wait no longer, at least not to wait patiently, and silently and inactively." He was chairman of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which led the civil rights march on Washington in 1963.
Wilkins won the NAACP's Spingarn Medal for distinguished service in civil rights in 1964 and received the Medal of Freedom from President Richard Nixon in 1969. He received honorary degrees and awards from 21 universities and colleges. President Lyndon Johnson named him a member of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in 1967.
In 1968 Wilkins announced a new plan to harness the energies and talents of young African American activists while maintaining a firm line against those who counseled violence and separation. Wilkins stood firmly against these militant movements, and he encouraged the NAACP not to back them either. By 1969 he was being vilified as an "Uncle Tom" by some African Americans and even found himself on the assassination list of one revolutionary group. "No matter how endlessly they try to explain it," Wilkins told Reader 's Digest, "the term 'black power' means anti-white power. [It is] a reverse Mississippi, a reverse Hitler, a reverse Ku Klux Klan."
At the sixty-first annual NAACP meeting in 1970, he warned that "there can be no compromise with the evil of segregation", meanwhile calling upon African Americans to reject separatism and join to build a single society with common opportunity.
He chose to keep his position as executive director year after year, even when high-ranking members of the organization asked him to step down. Wilkins never groomed a successor for his job and refused until 1976 even to court the idea of retirement. When he finally did leave his post in 1977, he was more or less forced to do so by the board of directors, who accused him off-the-record of mismanaging funds. Others supported Wilkins until the end, convinced that without his charismatic leadership, the NAACP would splinter into competing groups with separate directors.
Wilkins' health had been good for many years following surgery for cancer in 1946, but he began to decline in 1980. He died September 9, 1981, of kidney failure aggravated by heart trouble. Wilkins was eulogized by his successor as executive director of the NAACP, Dr. Benjamin Hooks. Hooks told the New York Times, "Mr. Wilkins was a towering figure in American history and during the time he headed the NAACP. It was during this crucial period that the association was faced with some of its most serious challenges and the whole landscape of the black condition in America was changed, radically, for the better." Jesse Jackson also praised Wilkins in the New York Times as "a man of integrity, intelligence and courage who, with his broad shoulders, bore more than his share of responsibility for our and the nation's advancement."
Wilkins' lifelong devotion to civil rights was fueled by a passion for justice. As he stated in his autobiography, he sought to fight against "a deep, unreasoning, savagely cruel refusal by too many white people to accept a simple, inescapable truth—the only master race is the human race, and we are all, by the grace of God, members of it." Years after his death, Wilkins remained one of the most respected voices in the battle for racial equality in the United States. He received numerous awards, including the NAACP's Spingarn Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, bestowed upon him by Lyndon Johnson in 1969, and the Congressional Gold Medal, bestowed posthumously in 1984.
Elton C. Fox, Contemporary Black Leaders (1970), and George R. Metcalf, Black Profiles (1970), contain chapters on Wilkins. Biographical sketches of Wilkins appear in Richard Bardolph, The Negro Vanguard (1959), and in Historical Negro Biographies of the International Library of Negro Life and History, edited by Whilhelmena S. Robinson (1968). Considerable biographical background is in Marcus H. Boulware, The Oratory of Negro Leaders, 1900-1968 (1969). Langston Hughes, Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP (1962), includes references to Wilkins. □
"Roy Wilkins." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/roy-wilkins
"Roy Wilkins." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved July 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/roy-wilkins
Roy Wilkins, 1901–81, American social reformer and civil-rights leader, b. St. Louis, Mo.; grad. Univ. of Minnesota (B.A., 1923). While a student, Wilkins served as secretary of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Upon graduation, he joined the Kansas City (Mo.) Call, a black weekly newspaper, and was its managing editor until 1931, when he became assistant executive secretary of the NAACP and editor of its official magazine, The Crisis. In 1955 he became executive secretary of the NAACP and in 1965, when the title of the position was changed, executive director, a position he held until 1977. In 1963 he helped organize the historic civil-rights march on Washington, D.C. Devoted to the principle of nonviolence, Wilkins came under increasing attack in the 1960s and early 70s from more militant blacks.
"Wilkins, Roy." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/wilkins-roy
"Wilkins, Roy." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved July 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/wilkins-roy