Roy WilkinsMay 31st, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Activism
1901-1981 Roy Wilkins rose through the ranks of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to become one of history’s most articulate and impassioned advocates for achieving equal rights through the legislative process. Under his leadership, the NAACP was instrumental in enacting the key civil rights legislation of the era.
Grandson of Slaves
Wilkins was born in 1901 in St. Louis, Missouri, the grandson of slaves. His mother died when he was five years old, and his father was unable to manage the family. Wilkins therefore grew up under the care of an aunt and uncle in St. Paul, Minnesota. His integrated first grade classroom and working class neighborhood there were seminal experiences for him.
He enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1919, and supported himself with odd jobs including night editor of the school newspaper, the Minnesota Daily. He found he had a knack for words and writing, and first joined the NAACP while in college. In 1923, he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in journalism. He joined the staff of the Kansas City Call in Missouri that year, a leading African American weekly in a city that showed stubbornly racist undercurrents. In Wilkins’ words, it was a place where “…even good manners could be a crime for a black man.”
Wilkins reacted to the city’s segregationist culture by deepening his involvement with the local chapter of the NAACP. He also fell in love with and married a social worker from St. Louis, Aminda “Minnie” Badeau. In 1931, NAACP Executive Director Walter White summoned him to serve as Assistant Executive Secretary of the national organization. Within his first year, Wilkins was instrumental in demonstrating against discriminatory practices on a federally financed flood control project in Mississippi and forcing Congressional action. In 1934, he was part of a Washington, D.C. march to protest the Attorney General’s failure to include lynching on the national crime agenda. There, he was arrested for the first (but not the last) time for displaying his beliefs.
In that same year, Wilkins succeeded W.E.B. DuBois as editor of The Crisis magazine, the official journal of the NAACP, a role he would play for the next 15 years while quietly influencing the course of civil rights actions in a style that earned him the nickname “The Gentle Giant.” Wilkins served as an advisor to the War Department during World War II, and then in 1945 acted as a consultant to White and DuBois at the San Francisco conference that would launch the newly formed United Nations. In 1949, White took a one-year leave of absence from the NAACP, and Wilkins served as acting Executive Secretary. He concurrently served as Chairman of the National Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization, which lobbied the federal government for civil rights legislation.
Wilkins was named Executive Secretary of the NAACP in 1955. For the next 22 years, he led the nation in the cause of civil rights. He testified to Congress in innumerable hearings, and counseled Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. During this period, the NAACP played a leadership role in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court victory of 1954 (barring “separate but equal” black schools). It was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, 1964, and 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. On signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson said: “We believe all men are created equal yet many are denied equal treatment… not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin.” President Johnson honored Wilkins with the highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, in 1969.
Wilkins’ tenure was not without conflict. He appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1963 with the banner “The Negro Revolution to Date,” and was an organizer of the historic March on Washington in that year, as he moved his organization toward a more active role. He also participated in the Selma to Montgomery Marches of 1965, and the March Against Fear in 1966. But the militant “black power” movements of the 1970s, including the Black Muslims and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, faulted Wilkins and the NAACP for failing to take more direct action. Wilkins held unswervingly to the principal of democratic processes within the legislative system, saying: “Muffle your rage. Get smart instead of muscular.”
In 1964, the NAACP acknowledged his success and contributions with the Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement. And in 1976, the University of Minnesota awarded Wilkins an honorary degree. He continued to write and publish widely, and served as Executive Secretary and Executive Director of the NAACP until 1977. He also served as Chairman of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, an organization with over 100 member groups, and on the boards of numerous foundations.
Wilkins died in 1981, leaving an incomparable legacy behind him. Under his leadership, the United States passed most of the pivotal civil rights legislation that would drive the subsequent evolution of a more just society. In his lifetime, he was awarded the Anti-Defamation League’s American Democratic Legacy Award, the Boy Scout’s Scout of the Year Award, the Civil Rights Award of the American Jewish Congress, and the Alpha Phi Psi fraternity’s Outstanding Citizen Award. The Roy Wilkins Centre for Human Relations and Human Justice was created by the University of Minnesota in 1992 as part of its Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. The NAACP offers a scholarship in his name. And the title of Wilkins’ autobiography (published posthumously in 1982), Standing Fast, is itself a fitting tribute to his life’s work.