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Wilkins, Roy

Wilkins, Roy

August 30, 1901
September 8, 1981

The civil rights leader, laborer, and journalist Roy Ottoway Wilkins was born in a first-floor flat in a black section of St. Louis, Missouri. Wilkins got his middle name from the African-American physician who delivered him, Dr. Ottoway Fields. At age four, following his mother's death, Wilkins went to St. Paul, Minnesota to live with his Aunt Elizabeth (Edmundson) and Uncle Sam Williams. The Williamses wrested legal guardianship of Roy, his brother Earl, and sister Armeda from their absentee, footloose father, William.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1923, and following a stint as night editor of the college newspaper and editor of the black weekly, the St. Paul Appeal, Wilkins moved to Kansas City where he was editor of the Kansas City Call for eight years. In 1929, in Kansas City, he married Aminda Badeau. In St. Paul and Kansas City, he was active in the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapters during a period when the NAACP was waging a full-scale attack against America's Jim Crow practices. Under Wilkins's stewardship the Call gave banner headline coverage to NAACP (acting) executive secretary Walter White's 1930 campaign to defeat President Herbert Hoover's nomination of Circuit Court Judge John J. Parker to the United States Supreme Court. Parker, in a race for North Carolina governor ten years earlier, had declared his antipathy toward blacks. The Call published Parker's photo alongside his quote during the campaign: "If I should be elected Governor and find that my election was due to one Negro vote, I would immediately resign my office." The Kansas City Call editorialized that "for a man who would be judge, prejudice is the unpardonable sin." The NAACP's success in blocking Parker's ascension to the U.S. Supreme Court gave Walter White national prominence and a friendship was forged between White, in New York, and Wilkins, in Kansas City.

In 1931 White invited Wilkins to join the national staff of the NAACP in New York as assistant secretary. Wilkins accepted the post with great excitement and anticipation, regarding the NAACP at the time as "the most militant civil rights organization in the country." Wilkins, in his autobiography, recalled that the NAACP during the 1920s and 1930s had "pounded down the South's infamous grandfather clauses, exposed lynchings, and pushed for a federal antilynching law" and had "exposed the spread of peonage among black sharecroppers in the South, prodded the Supreme Court into throwing out verdicts reached by mob-dominated juries, and blotted out residential segregation by municipal ordinance." The NAACP was overturning the racial status quo and Wilkins wanted to be involved.

But there was also dissent within the NAACP. In 1934, following a blistering public attack on Walter White's leadership and on the NAACP's integrationist philosophy from NAACP cofounder W. E. B. Du Bois, who subsequently resigned as editor of the NAACP's penetrating and influential magazine, The Crisis, Wilkins succeeded Du Bois as editor of The Crisis while continuing in his post as assistant secretary. Wilkins was editor of The Crisis for fifteen years (19341949).

Du Bois's open flirtation with voluntary segregation did not alter the NAACP's course; throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the NAACP continued to attack Jim Crow laws and to work on behalf of blacks' full integration into American society. But by 1950, Walter White's leadership was on the wane; in that year Wilkins was designated NAACP administrator. White lost key support because of a divorce and his remarriage to a white woman, and his failing health made him especially vulnerable to his detractors. Upon White's death in 1955, Wilkins became executive secretary of the NAACP in the wake of its momentous victory in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), the Supreme Court case in which NAACP lawyers had successfully argued that racially separate public schools were inherently unequal.

Wilkins served as the NAACP's executive secretary and director for twenty-two years, longer than any other NAACP leader. His tenure characterized him as a pragmatist and strategist who believed that reasoned arguments, both in the courtroom and in public discourse, would sway public opinion and public officials to purposeful actions on behalf of racial equality. During the 1960s, Wilkins was widely regarded as "Mr. Civil Rights," employing the NAACP's huge nationwide membership of 400,000, and its lawyers' network, to back up the direct-action campaigns of more fiery leaders like the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and James Farmer. The NAACP supplied money and member support to the massive March on Washington in 1963. Always moderate in language and temperament, and lacking a charismatic personal style, Wilkins was most comfortable as a strategist and adviser. He had meetings with presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter, and he was a friend of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Major civil rights legislation was signed into law in Wilkins's presence, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

As the standard-bearer of integration during the turbulent 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the NAACP was pilloried with criticism from black separatists and from whites who opposed school busing and affirmative action programs. Wilkins steered a steady course, however, eschewing racial quotas but insisting on effective legal remedies to purposeful and systemic racial discrimination that included race-conscious methods of desegregating schools, colleges, and the workplace. He simultaneously took to task the exponents of black nationalism. During the height of the Black Power movement, in 1966, Wilkins denounced calls for black separatism, saying Black Power "can mean in the end only black death." Although one of America's most influential and well-known leaders, Wilkins refused to arrogate to himself the plaudits due him because of his successes. He was a frugal administrator and humble individual who routinely took the subway to work.

By 1976, after forty-five years with the NAACP, Wilkins, at age seventy-five, was barely holding on to his post at the NAACP's helm. A year later, in failing health, he retired to his home in Queens, New York, where he spent his last years in the company of his wife. The winner of the NAACP's Spingarn Medal in 1964, and the recipient of many other awards, including over fifty honorary degrees, Wilkins died in September 1981. At his funeral in New York City, hundreds of mourners, black and white, remembered him as a man who refused to bend to fashion.

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ; Crisis, The ; Black Power Movement; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Jim Crow; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Voting Rights Act of 1965; White, Walter Francis


Wilkins, Roger. A Man's Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

Wilkins, Roy, with Tom Mathews. Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins. New York: Viking Press, 1982.

michael meyers (1996)

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