Roy Wilkins: 1901-1981
Roy Wilkins once described what he did for a living: "I work for Negroes." An old-fashioned word, dignified and stubbornly cherished by an old-fashioned man of principle. In a lifetime dedicated to achieving full civil rights for black Americans, Wilkins was sustained by a determined optimism and a steady faith that "there are more people who want to do good than do evil." He spent half a century with the oldest, largest and most influential civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 22 of those years as executive director. His "crowning glory," he said, was the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education, which overturned the doctrine of separate but equal educational facilities. The case was planned by Wilkins and argued by Thurgood Marshall, then N.A.A.C.P. special counsel and now a Supreme Court Justice.
When he died last week in New York City at 80, Wilkins had been out of the public eye since his retirement from the N.A.A.C.P. in 1977. Overcome in his last years by age and ill health, he nonetheless remained a revered figure among blacks and whites alike. Wilkins was a gentlemanpatient, diplomatic, someone who considered it important to win friends for his cause. He believed, as ardently as any right-wing patriot, that America was a land of opportunity and justice that could, if one worked within the system, be opened to all. His tools were education, court appeals, lobbying and grass-roots organizing; his strength was a rare combination of persuasion and toughness. He was among the last of a generation of civil rights leaders who pulled and tugged and cajoled the nation through decades of change so profound that many young Americans cannot imagine, still less remember, what segregation was like.
The grandson of a Mississippi slave, Wilkins was born Aug. 30, 1901, in St. Louis. His parents were both college graduates, his father an ordained minister who could find work only as a foreman in a brick kiln. When Roy Wilkins was four, his mother died of tuberculosis and he was sent to live with relatives in St. Paul. He grew up in a poor but integrated, predominantly Scandinavian neighborhood, working his way through the University of Minnesota as a porter, dining-car waiter and stockyard worker.
After graduation in 1923, he became a reporter for the Kansas City Call, a leading black weekly. There he met Aminda Badeau, who was to be his wife for 51 years, and for the first time became aware of "the magnitude of racial bias in the U.S." Schools, movies, restaurants, even drinking fountains were segregated. "It was a slow accumulation of humiliations and grievances," he recalled. "Kansas City ate my heart out. It was a Jim Crow town through and through."
He could have returned to the relative comfort of Minnesota. Instead, in 1931 Wilkins joined the N.A.A.C.P. staff, at a time when lynching was still a threat in the U.S. "We had to provide physical security first," he said. At great risk, he investigated brutal conditions in Mississippi delta labor camps, and his report prompted Congress to set up minimum standards and wages for all flood-control laborers. In 1934 he succeeded W.E.B. DuBois as editor of the N.A.A.C.P. magazine, the Crisis.