civil rights leader; journalist
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.
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
Like many other black men born at the turn of the century, Wilkins faced a bleak
future. He was born 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.
blacks lived in St. Paul at the time. Wilkins grew up in an integrated
neighborhood and attended an integrated 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."
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.
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
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 vs. 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
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."
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."
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
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.
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.
- 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.
— Mark Kram