Wilkins, Roger 1932–
Roger Wilkins 1932–
Writer, attorney, activist, educator
Roger Wilkins—author, journalist, commentator, lawyer, and social activist—is a vocal advocate for all black Americans. He chronicled his individual struggle and personal liberation as a black American in his 1982 autobiography A Man’s Life, which has provided inspiration for a multitude. Wilkins has worn many hats in his lifetime, and his writing amply reflects the broad spectrum of his experience.
Born March 25, 1932, in Kansas City, Missouri, Wilkins was the only son of journalist Earl W. Wilkins and YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) national board member Helen Natalie Jackson. His uncle, Roy Wilkins, was the former director of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Wilkins was raised in a middle-class home in the Kansas City area until the age of eight, when his father died of tuberculosis. He then moved to New York City with his mother to live with his grandmother and other relatives in the comfortable Sugar Hill section of Harlem.
As A Man’s Life recalls, Wilkins’s father had written him a letter from a tuberculosis sanitarium that read: “Your infancy is now past and it is now that you should begin to turn your thoughts upon those achievements which are expected of a brilliant young gentleman well on his way to manhood.” His father instructed him to learn the alphabet and “certain French and English idioms which are part of every cultivated person’s vocabulary.” Wilkins was also urged to gain complete control of those “natural functions which uncontrolled are a source of worry and embarrassment to even the best of grandmothers.” The letter ended with “Great things are expected of you. Never, never forget that.” When he was 11, Wilkins’s mother married a successful Michigan doctor; the boy moved with his new family to a white neighborhood in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he attended a white school.
Wilkins encountered profound obstacles as a teenager growing up in an all-white environment: He felt isolated from, and uncomfortable with, his black peers, and different from, and defensive with, his white peers. Nonetheless, his high-school friends were white. Because of this he carried with him an extreme sense of exclusion until his senior year. In his autobiography he wrote, “With my friends in the North End, race was never mentioned. Ever. I carried my race around me like an
Born Roger Wood Wilkins, March 25, 1932, in Kansas City, MO; son of Earl W. Wilkins (a journalist) and Helen Natalie Jackson; married Eve Estelle Tyler (a public service executive) June 16, 1956 (divorced, 1976); married May Meyers (an artist), April 4, 1977 (divorced, 1978); married Patricia King (a teacher of law), February 21, 1981; children (first marriage) Amy T., David E.; (third marriage) Elizabeth W. C. Education: University of Michigan, A.B., 1953, LL.B., 1956. Politics: Democrat.
Welfare worker in Cleveland, Ohio, 1957; Delson & Gordon (law firm), New York City, attorney, 1958-62; Agency for International Development (AID), Washington D.C., special assistant administrator, 1962-64; U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington D.C., director of community relations, 1964-66; U.S. Department of Justice, Washington D.C., assistant attorney general, 1966-69; Ford Foundation, New York City, program director and adviser to foundation president, 1969-72; Washington Post, Washington D.C., member of editorial staff, 1972-74; New York Times, New York City, member of editorial board, 1974-77, urban affairs columnist 1977-79; The Nation, New York City, member of editorial board, 1979—; Washington Star, Washington D.C., associate editor, 1980-81; CBS-Radio, New York City, commentator for Spectrum program, 1980-83; Institute for Policy Studies, Washington D.C., senior fellow, 1982—; George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, professor of history and American culture, 1987—.
Addresses: Office —c/o Clarence J. Robinson Professor of History and American Culture, Robinson Professors, 207 East Building, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030-4444.
open basket of rotten eggs. I knew I could drop one at any moment and it would explode with a stench over everything. This was in the days when the movies either had no blacks at all or they featured rank stereotypes … and the popular magazines … carried no stories about blacks, and had no ads depicting blacks and generally gave the impression that we did not exist in this society. I knew that my white friends, being well brought-up, were just too polite to mention this disability that I had.” During his senior year Wilkins was elected president of his high school’s student council; he later wrote in his autobiography that “It was a breakthrough of sorts.”
After high school Wilkins attended the University of Michigan, and then the University of Michigan Law School. His career began as a welfare worker in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1957. In 1958, after being admitted to the Bar of the State of New York, he began practicing international law at the firm of Delson & Gordon in New York City. Wilkins remained there for four years before moving on to a special assistant administrator post at the Agency for International Development (AID) in Washington, D.C.
In 1964 Wilkins spent two years at the U.S. Department of Commerce as director of community relations. Finding government service to his liking, he then accepted a position with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington D.C. as an assistant attorney general. He moved to New York City in 1969, leaving government work to spend three years at the Ford Foundation as program director and advisor to the foundation president. As director of domestic programs at the Ford Foundation he oversaw the provision of funds for drug-abuse rehabilitation, job training, education for the poor, and a host of minority-related projects. While with the foundation Wilkins befriended many of Manhattan’s cultural icons, including conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein and writers Lillian Hellman, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, and Gore Vidal. In his autobiography Wilkins wrote that this group of prominent friends “seemed as devoid of racism as any group of whites I had ever encountered.”
Still, though Wilkins found himself enmeshed in a progressive social circle and a profession that put him in touch with the needs of black Americans, he felt continuing estrangement from society, and even from himself. He explained in A Man’s Life that he felt his work was not as creative, individualistic, or celebrated as that of many of his friends, and even more, he felt that he was isolated from the very people he strove to assist. His privileged personal life was so removed from his professional life that he felt he was betraying his commitment to black Americans. In 1970, in an effort to remedy this split within himself, he became a member of the board of the NAACP Legislative Defense Fund.
Wilkins left his post at the Ford Foundation in 1972 to work on the editorial board of the Washington Post. There, after so much personal and professional self-doubt, he flourished; his editorials helped earn the Post a special Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Watergate scandal. Wilkins worked at the Washington Post for two years and then was a member of the editorial board—as well as an urban affairs columnist—for the New York Times. He later served on the editorial board of The Nation. Never too far from his father’s mandate for him to achieve great things, Wilkins’s professional productivity also stretched to the Washington Star, where he was an associate editor during 1980, and to the Pulitzer Prize Board, on which he sat from 1980 to 1989. In 1982 he accepted a position as senior fellow at Washington D.C.’s Institute for Policy Studies, a private research organization.
That year Wilkins’s autobiography, A Man’s Life, was published; it garnered national attention. Award-winning author James Baldwin lauded the autobiography in the Washington Post Book World, claiming, “Wilkins has written a most beautiful book and has delivered an impeccable testimony out of that implacable private place where a man either lives or dies.” Baldwin also referred to the book as “indispensable reading” and “unprecedented.” He continued: “Read Roger Wilkins’s record of how it is. Few documents will, in your lifetime, equal it.… Read it if you have the courage to love your children. This book is an act of love, written by a lover, and a father and one of the only friends your children have.”
Joel Dreyfuss wrote in his New York Times review of A Man’s Life: “What makes ‘A Man’s Life’ revealing is Roger Wilkins’s perspective as a contemporary black man who moved inside the corridors of power. While most of his predecessors confronted the blatant, often violent racism of earlier times, Wilkins wrestled with the more ephemeral demons of racism in the 1960s.… Wilkins operated in a world of plush offices, cocktail parties and bureaucratic power plays.” Dreyfuss elaborated on the singular power of Wilkins’s point of view, asserting that “most discussions of race relations … dismiss the black middle class as superficial, materialistic or irrelevant. But, as Roger Wilkins’s own story attests, the black middle class has provided much of the leadership for black progress through most of American history.”
Wilkins spoke at the National Adult Education Conference in Philadelphia in 1983, and said, as reprinted in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “I have a horrible dream. I have a dream that all the struggles of my lifetime will result in 70 blacks being in Congress, 40 black mayors across the country, 500 black millionaires—and one third of black people, or more, totally downtrodden.” He recalled the Harlem of his youth, where a middle-class black man would sit in a barbershop next to a poor black bellhop, and middle-class black adults were role models for the poor children of the neighborhood. “Everybody’s problem was everybody else’s problem,” he remembered. “There was a unified community.” Wilkins affirmed his belief that the black middle class, which has largely fled the nation’s ghettos, must lead poor blacks out of the poverty crisis in order to “have the flame to attract white assistance” to build a strong, cohesive society. As the eighties wore on, Wilkins’s conviction of black middle-class responsibility continued to solidify. In 1988 he wrote an article for the Washington Post titled “Dr. King’s Unfinished Business,” in which he urged middle-class blacks to carry on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s crusade for the poor.
In 1987 Wilkins became a professor of history and American culture at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. In August of 1989 he wrote a landmark article for the New York Times called “The Black Poor Are Different,” wherein he provided specific, detailed steps for changing the dismal status quo within urban black communities. He wrote: “The elementary schools … need to be augmented with multipurpose family service centers to help meet the needs of a single parent family. Parents could get substantial personal support from trained counselors, group therapy, and the knowledge that in their barren neighborhood there was not only a place dispensing services but also providing a real source of communal life.”
Wilkins ushered in the nineties with a PBS Frontline documentary about the plight of poor black men in America called “Throw-Away People.” He put this crisis in its proper economic and historical context, from mass migrations of black laborers through recessions, from neglect to the current crack epidemic. Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter called the effort “thoughtful and textured” and “predictable without being pat.” Wilkins believes the answer to the poverty/crime plague stifling the black community lies in massive intervention by the government and private sector to teach values and workplace skills. He would also like to produce another documentary explaining which pilot programs offering assistance are effective and why they work.
In his long and multi-faceted career Wilkins has written more than 40 articles and several columns for various periodicals; among others, he has contributed to Ebony, Mother Jones, the Progressive, Black Enterprise, Jet, Harper’s, Fortune, Esquire, and Reader’s Digest, offering commentary on such topics as President George Bush and race relations, affirmative action, and segregation, as well on feminism, nuclear weapons, and even the holiday blues. While the scope and sheer volume of his output are impressive in themselves, it is Wilkins’s unique insight and keen analytical ability—particularly in the realms of politics and race relations—that have made him one of America’s greatest social critics. Reflecting on his need to continue the fight for the betterment of American blacks, and indeed all people, Wilkins wrote in his autobiography: “I’ve always thought that if I had 15 lucid moments before I die, I’ll want to look back and see that I tried to act with honor. The struggle of life is not won with one glorious moment … but a continual struggle in which you keep your dignity intact and your powers at work, over the long course of a lifetime.”
A Man’s Life: An Autobiography, Simon & Schuster, 1982.
Wilkins, Roger, A Man’s Life: An Autobiography, Simon & Schuster, 1982.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, February 23, 1986; July 17, 1988; November 2, 1989; November 12, 1989; January 14, 1990.
Black Enterprise, May 1988.
Ebony, July 1982.
Esquire, December 1984.
Essence, November 1982.
Fortune, March 9, 1981.
Harper’s, April 1982.
Jet, January 2, 1984; January 3, 1985.
Los Angeles Times, December 19, 1984; January 19, 1986; October 26, 1988; March 4, 1991.
Milwaukee Journal, January 16, 1982.
Nation, April 11, 1981; October 10, 1981; December 24, 1983; November 3, 1984; June 14, 1986; March 19, 1988; October 10, 1988.
National Review, January 23, 1981; August 20, 1982.
Newsweek, August 2, 1982; February 19, 1990.
New York Times, October 6, 1968; January 25, 1974; September 28, 1981; June 14, 1982; June 20, 1982; February 2, 1984; March 16, 1984; January 24, 1985; January 5, 1987; August 22, 1989; February 22, 1990; September 30, 1990.
Philadelphia Inquirer, April 18, 1981; December 2, 1983.
The Progressive, May 1980; July 1980; September 1980; October 1988.
Reader’s Digest, November 1988; February 1990.
Wall Street Journal, March 19, 1986.
Washington Post, January 25, 1974; June 6, 1982; January 17, 1988; February 19, 1989; July 15, 1990; December 5, 1990; December 18, 1990.
—B. Kimberly Taylor
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