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
The grandson of former slaves from Holly Springs, Mississippi, Roy Ottoway Wilkins was born August 30, 1901, in St. Louis, Missouri. As soon as he learned how to write, he dropped his middle name, the name of the doctor who delivered him. His mother died from tuberculosis when he was four years old; a brother and sister died from the same disease. After the death of his mother, Wilkins’s father, who worked in a brick kiln, could not care for him and his siblings. As a result, they went to live with his maternal aunt Elizabeth and uncle Sam Williams in a lower income, integrated neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was generally spared the blatant racism often encountered by African Americans in the southern states.
After graduating from Mechanic Arts High School, Wilkins entered the University of Minnesota. He worked his way through college by taking jobs as a stockyard worker and Pullman car waiter. He also worked as a journalist and night editor with the Minnesota Daily and became editor of the St. Paul Appeal, an African American weekly newspaper. He was a member of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1923 with a degree in sociology and a minor in journalism, Wilkins became editor of the Kansas City Call, another African American weekly. He married social worker Aminda “Minnie” Badeau in 1929; they had no children.
In Kansas City he first came face-to-face with racism. There he discovered that even having good manners was a crime for black men. Wilkins recounted a story of an incident when he offered his seat on a streetcar to an elderly white woman. Her response to another white passenger was that she was not so old that she would take a seat from a “nigger.” Wilkins indicated that he quickly changed from a “soft shell boy to a well-armored Kansas City slicker.” He began to use the pages of the Call to attack white racism. For example, he used the paper to wage a campaign against racist Missouri senator Henry J. Allen, who was subsequently defeated. When he moved the paper from simply generating sensational stories to bringing attention to segregation issues, circulation went from 4,000 to 20,000. This made the Call the second largest African American weekly in the country, after the Chicago Defender.
Wilkins continued to be actively involved in the local NAACP, serving as secretary of the Kansas City branch. Those activities and Wilkins’s work on the newspaper exposing segregation brought him to the attention of Walter White, executive director of the NAACP. In 1931, White recruited Wilkins to serve as assistant secretary of the organization in New York.
One of Wilkins’s first assignments was to investigate lynching and African American working conditions in the South. In 1932 he traveled incognito to the river camps set up along the Mississippi River to investigate the slave-labor-like conditions facing black convicts on federally controlled flood projects. His report, Mississippi Slave Labor, led to Congress enacting reform measures that improved the working conditions in levee labor camps. From that point forward, Wilkins was at the forefront of the NAACP’s efforts at addressing lynching, fair housing, equal employment opportunity, and integration. When W. E. B. Du Bois left the NAACP in 1934, Wilkins became editor of The Crisis, the official magazine of the organization. He served in that role until 1949.
After White’s death in 1955, Wilkins became executive secretary of the NAACP. By this time he was known to have an excellent reputation as an articulate advocate for civil rights. One of his first actions was to assist activists in Mississippi who were facing a credit squeeze by the racist White Citizens’ Council. Dr. T. R. M. Howard, a physician and local race relations activist, was the head of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. He proposed to Wilkins that black businesses and organizations should move their accounts to a black-owned bank. Wilkins backed the proposal. By the end of 1955, approximately $280,000 had been deposited in Tri-State Bank of Memphis, Tennessee. The bank then made loans to African Americans who had been turned down by white banks. The venture proved to be successful.
Wilkins’s leadership coincided with the beginnings of the civil rights movement. One year after the organization’s victory in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, Rosa Parks, a member and former secretary of the Montgomery, Alabama, branch of the NAACP, refused to yield her seat on a segregated bus to a white rider. As a result, a one-day boycott against the transit system was initiated. The boycott lasted a year and catapulted to fame Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King, then pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, spearheaded the Montgomery movement. Shortly after the Supreme Court ruled in Gayle v. Browder (1956) that segregation on city buses was unconstitutional, King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an association of scores of black churches. This organization became a competitor to the NAACP, its membership consisting of groups of churchgoers, whereas NAACP membership was individual, reflecting the NAACP’s legalist approach to racial issues. Wilkins had to contend with King’s belief that change would occur mainly through direct community action. Wilkins continued to promote the NAACP’s mission to fight segregation through legal challenges and legislation. However, he did work hand-in-hand with the SCLC on all major civil rights activities.
Wilkins participated in all the major events during the turbulent years of the 1960s. He helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington and appeared on the cover of Time magazine on August 30, 1963, just two days after the momentous march. He participated in the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965 and the March Against Fear in 1966. He led the NAACP in its efforts to secure support for and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In his role as executive director (the title changed from secretary to director in 1964), Wilkins was the individual who testified on behalf of the organization before Congress and consulted with presidents.
Wilkins not only directly consulted with all presidents from John F. Kennedy to Jimmy Carter but also had knowledge of the actions of presidents going back to Franklin Roosevelt. He analyzed the role that presidents played in responding to the NAACP’s agenda. He felt that Roosevelt was overrated, pointing to the fact that the New Deal’s social security program excluded farmers and domestics, the two areas of employment in which African Americans were most heavily represented. He gave more credit to Harry Truman, who, he felt, risked his reelection by throwing the full authority of the federal government behind a call for civil rights for all American citizens. Wilkins felt that Dwight Eisenhower was guilty of moral abdication in his tardy intervention in the Little Rock, Arkansas, Central High School desegregation case. Wilkins acknowledged that while John Kennedy improved the moral climate, he was evasive when it came to action. In his view, Lyndon Johnson was the most sincere and passionate advocate of civil rights. Richard Nixon was indifferent and set back the cause of civil rights, despite having introduced the concept of affirmative action.
As the civil rights movement gave way to the militancy of the Black Power movement, Wilkins was often criticized by black militants as leading an organization that was antiquated. Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was especially critical of Wilkins and the NAACP. He and others saw Wilkins as a “knee-bowing supplicant” who was out of touch with the needs of the community. Wilkins saw the militants as young firebrands whose defiance in white America was “desperate lunacy.” He continued to appeal to the conscience of America, stating that America was as much the land of African Americans as of any other group. He held that African Americans help build and defend the nation and had every right to participate in society on all levels. The NAACP under his leadership provided financial and legal support for community-action programs in urban areas that were sponsored by the very organizations that criticized his leadership.
In addition to his NAACP duties, Wilkins was an adviser to the War Department during World War II. He chaired the American delegation to the International Conference on Human Rights in Teheran and was president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. For his work in civil rights Wilkins was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP in 1964, and he received the coveted Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1967 from President Johnson.
Wilkins retired from the NAACP at age seventy-six in 1977. He was succeeded by Benjamin Hooks. Wilkins died September 8, 1981, in New York. His autobiography, Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins, was published posthumously in 1982. In 1986, on behalf of Congress, President Ronald Reagan presented his widow, Aminda Wilkins, the Congressional Gold Medal to commemorate Wilkins’s contributions to the cause of human liberty. He was also the twenty-fourth African American honored with a commemorative stamp as part of the U.S. Postal Service’s Black Heritage series. The stamp was unveiled January 24, 2001, in Minneapolis.
SEE ALSO NAACP.
“The Awful Roar.” 1963. Time. August 30. Available from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,940696,00.html
Minnesota Historical Society. 2007. “Roy Wilkins.” Available from http://www.mnhs.org/library/tips/history_topics/129wilkins.htm.
Reagan, Ronald. 1986. “Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Congressional Gold Medal Honoring Roy Wilkins.” Available from http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1986/11686d.htm.
Wilkins, Roy, and Tom Mathews. 1982. Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins. New York: Viking.
Williams, Juan. 1987. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965. New York: Viking Penguin.
Mamie E. Locke
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 (1934–1949).
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)
(b. 30 August 1901 in St. Louis, Missouri; d. 8 September 1981 in New York City), civil rights leader in the 1960s who was instrumental in securing voting rights for African Americans and who eventually served the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for forty-six years.
Wilkins's father, William, fled St. Louis prior to his son's birth to escape being lynched for refusing to allow his civil rights to be abused; the boy's mother, Mayfield Edmondson, died when he was four years old. Wilkins and his younger sister and brother were raised by an aunt and uncle in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in a poor, integrated neighborhood. Wilkins attended the integrated Mechanic Arts High School. After earning a B.A. in sociology, economics, and journalism in 1923 from the University of Minnesota, he joined Kansas City's African-American newspaper, the Call, as a reporter and soon became the managing editor. In 1926 he began dating Aminda "Minnie" Badeau, and they were married on 15 September 1929. Although the couple had no biological children, they raised Wilkins's brother's son.
As a journalist Wilkins's interest in writing overlapped with his participation in civil rights events and organizations. In 1931 he was appointed as the assistant executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and in 1934 he replaced W. E. B. Dubois as the editor of Crisis, the NAACP's official magazine, a position he held until 1949. He was appointed as the executive director of the NAACP in 1955.
During his long tenure in this position, Wilkins served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He and Senator Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts were the only African Americans on the commission, which was chaired by Otto Kerner, the governor of Illinois. Being a member of the commission was very important for the levelheaded and respected leader during the racial turmoil of the 1960s.
The year 1963 was a critical time for the civil rights movement, with the historic March on Washington taking place on 28 August. Wilkins initially was reluctant to participate in the march, for he feared reprisal from the administration of President John F. Kennedy, which was divided over its support. However, he joined the leadership forces of A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Whitney Young, Jr., to march for the desegregation of all public schools and better housing, legal rights, and employment opportunities for African Americans. This demonstration was larger than any in the annals of the nation's capital: more than 250,000 African Americans joined with white labor and civil rights supporters. After the march the key figures in its success, including Wilkins, were invited to the White House to meet with Kennedy to discuss and work on strategies for African-American labor to acquire equality.
A year later Wilkins's life was threatened through an anonymous letter, postmarked 5 January 1964 at Saint Petersburg, Florida, which was received at the Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters in Washington, D.C. The letter stated that Wilkins, King, and Ivan Allen, the mayor of Atlanta, would be killed, as would Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who was now the president. While there were suspects, no one was ever indicted for sending the letter. Also in 1964, following riots in northern urban areas, Wilkins asked the U.S. Department of Justice to initiate a full-scale investigation, because he felt there were outside forces influencing these violent activities.
In 1967, when King spoke emphatically against U.S. participation in the war in Vietnam, Wilkins, a conservative, refused to support him. In fact, Wilkins did not want the NAACP to be part of the opposition of the war and grumbled publicly about King's stance. With this activity, as well as plans to ease racial tensions in Cleveland, Wilkins felt King was going to "stir up trouble." Wilkins believed the primary causes of urban racial friction were slums, lack of jobs, and poor public schools in the South. He felt Congress's refusal to pass open-housing legislation and civil rights bills was "creating the atmosphere" for violence.
Wilkins was steadfast about defining civil rights as an ongoing issue, whether in war or peace. By the late 1960s his belief that nonviolence would attain better results for African Americans was seemingly becoming history, however, especially with the rise of the Black Muslims and Black Panthers. Stokely Carmichael's "black power" slogan echoed throughout all civil rights activity during the turbulent, hot summer of 1966. That slogan swiftly traveled across the United States and hit every historically African-American college and university, as well as high schools and some major academic centers. The new movement was well on its way.
At the annual NAACP convention in Los Angeles on 5 July 1968, Wilkins announced that he opposed the black power concept. "No matter how endlessly they try to explain it, the term 'black power' means anti–white power.… It has to mean 'going it alone.' It has to mean separatism."
Other civil rights advocates, including the "young turks" of the NAACP, did not equate black power with black supremacy. They perceived it as a unified black platform of self-esteem in a heterogeneous society. This controversy split the organization, and many African Americans lost respect for Wilkins and the NAACP. They began to view the association as a platform for white politicians. Regardless, Wilkins was clear about his goal, which was to obliterate legal segregation throughout the United States. He stood before the Equal Opportunity in an Urban Society Subcommittee of the Republican Platform Committee in Miami on 31 July 1968 and said the nation needed a social and economic bill of rights that guaranteed basic rights for every American.
Wilkins's workable strategies and humane efforts led to national and international recognition of his contributions to the civil rights movement. In 1964 he received the NAACP's most prestigious award, the Spingarn Medal. In addition, he was awarded honorary doctorates from more than thirty institutions of higher learning throughout the United States. In 1981, just four years after retiring from the NAACP, Wilkins died of kidney failure at the age of eighty. He is buried in Farmingdale, New York.
The 1960s was a critical period for Wilkins and the civil rights movement. It was the zenith of protest, radicalism, freedom train rides, marches, and demonstrations. Wilkins, from the old school of thought, firmly believed in integration and nonviolence and was criticized for being too cautious and old-fashioned. His speeches primarily dealt with voter registration, school desegregation, and federal civil rights legislation. He was able to achieve positive results in integrating public schools, improving employment levels, gaining voting rights, and providing greater opportunities for all. Regardless of the controversy over Wilkins's ideology concerning the Black Power movement, his gentle, unwavering spirit, hope, and intellectual skills brought together a society that was in political pain and social turmoil.
Whenever Wilkins was asked for whom he worked, he always responded, "I work for Negroes." His contributions to civil rights created a progressive path to a better society.
Wilkins's papers are held by the Library of Congress. Wilkins left a large body of writing, including many articles and an autobiography, with Tom Mathews, Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins (1982). For additional biographical data on Wilkins, see Herbert Aptheker, ed., A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, 1933–1945 (1951); Albert P. Blaustein and Robert L. Zanrendo, Civil Rights and African Americans (1968); Peter M. Bergman, Chronological History of the Negro in America (1969); Norman Coombs, The Black Experience in America (1972); Lenwood G. Davis, A Paul Robeson Research Guide (1982); Harry A. Ploski and James Williams, The Negro Almanac: A Reference Work on the African American (1989); and Leon T. Ross and Kenneth A. Mimms, African American Almanac (1997). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 9 Sept. 1981)
Otis D. Alexander
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. □