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Articulate, painstaking in his research, Wilkins mastered powerful arguments for unpopular positions and, more difficult, could translate them into public support. An adviser to Presidents, he led the fight to desegregate the armed forces, marched long before demonstrations were legal, and in 1963 initiated one of the first major lunch-counter sit-ins, in Jackson, Miss. When 250,000 people gathered on the Washington Mall, Martin Luther King Jr. captured the headlines with his fiery oratory, but Roy Wilkins was a key figure in organizing the march and in the backstage lobbying that ultimately achieved passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. During the turmoil of the '60s, younger, more militant blacks assailed Wilkins as an Uncle Tom, and the N.A.A.C.P. as stodgy and middle class. Wilkins, true to his principles, denounced black separatism and violence as no less evil than segregation and lynching. "Black power," he said, "can only mean black death."
Wilkins once commented that the two people he most admired in history were the black revolutionaries Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner. By remaining a peaceful man of reason, Roy Wilkins well earned a place among his heroes.