Civil Rights Leader
On September 8, 1981, Roy Wilkins, who had served as Executive Secretary of
the NAACP for 22 years, died quietly in New York City at the age of 80. He had
retired from the NAACP in 1977 and since then had been in declining health.
His death removed from scene the last of the towering leaders who had played
major roles in the Civil Rights Movement of the fifties and sixties--Martin
Luther King, Whitney Young, Malcolm X, A. Philip Randolph.
Of his passing, Newsweek magazine said: (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 Americans cannot imagine, still less remember, what segregation was like.)
Once asked to describe what he did for a living, Wilkins said, "I work for Negroes." He could never bring himself to use the word "black," and this, along with his thoughtful, deliberate pace, made him seem out of date to younger blacks. In fact, there were rumblings within the NAACP, even before he retired, that he should step down, but he remained in his position until it became physically impossible for him to continue.
A courtly and gracious man, he was sustained by a determined optimism and a steady faith that "there are more people who want to do good than do evil."
When asked to describe his greatest satisfaction in life, he pointed to the Brown decision of 1954 that ended segregation in the public schools and heralded the end of legalized segregation in the country.
Born in St. Louis on August 30, 1901, Wilkins was reared in the home of and aunt and uncle living in St. Paul, Minnesota. Though poor, he was able to attend integrated schools in the city, and he grew up in what might be termed a racially mixed community.
Wilkins majored in sociology and minored in journalism while attending the University of Minnesota, supporting himself by doing a variety of odd jobs. He also served as night editor of the Minnesota Daily (the school paper) and edited a black weekly, the St Paul Appeal. After receiving his B.A. in 1923, he joined the staff of the Kansas City Call, a leading black weekly. While in Missouri, Wilkins gained his first insight into segregation as an entrenched system, and resolved to broaden his activities in the NAACP, an organization which he had first joined while in college.
In 1931 Wilkins left the Call to serve under Walter White as assistant executive secretary of the NAACP. A year later, he substantiated charges of discrimination on a federally financed flood control project in Mississippi and played an instrumental role in getting Congress to take action to curb its practice there.
In 1934, he joined a picket march in Washington, D. C., protesting the failure of the Attorney General to include lynching on the agenda of a national conference on crime. For his pains, he suffered the first arrest of his career. Beginning in this same year, Wilkins put his editorial talent to work for the NAACP, succeeding W. E. B. DuBois as editor of Crisis magazine. (He held this post for some 15 years.) In 1945, after having served as an advisor in the War Department, he acted as a consultant to the American delegation at the United Nations conference in San Francisco.
Wilkins was named acting executive secretary of the NAACP in 1949, the year Walter White took a year's leave of absence from the organization. At the same time, he functioned as chairman of the National Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization, a pressure group which sent numerous lobbyists to Washington, D. C. to campaign for civil rights and fair employment legislation.
Wilkins assumed his position as executive secretary of the NAACP in 1955, upon the death of Walter White. He quickly established himself as one of the most articulate spokesmen in the civil rights movement. He testified before innumerable Congressional hearings, conferred with all the Presidents, and wrote extensively for all manner of publications. His training as a journalist stood him in good stead, for he never used a ghost writer.
Although Wilkins and the NAACP became more militant in the 1970s, both he and organization were, nevertheless, subjected to attack by more radical groups, such as the Black Muslims. However, he never wavered in his determination to use all constitutional means at his disposal to help blacks achieve the rights of full citizenship within the democratic framework of American society.
For a number of years, Wilkins was the chairman of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a group composed of over 100 national civic, labor, fraternal, and religious organizations. He was a trustee of the Eleanor Roosevelt Foundation, the Kennedy Memorial Library Foundation and the Estes Kefauver Memorial Foundation. He was also a member of the Board of Directors of the Riverdale Children's Association, the John LaFarge Institute, and the Stockbridge School, as well as Peace with Freedom, and international organization working toward the goals described in its name.
Among the numerous awards conferred on Wilkins were the Anti-Defamation League's American Democratic Legacy Award, the Alpha Phi Psi fraternity's Outstanding Citizen Award, the American Jewish Congress' Civil Rights Award, and the Boy Scout's Scout of the Year Award. He received the Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award of the University of Minnesota, and awards from the Japanese- American Citizens' League, the Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice, B'nai B'rith Lodges, the Jewish War Veterans, the Postal Alliance, the National Medical Association, and the Eastern Star Lodge. He also holds the Russwurm Award of the National Newspaper Publishers Association. In 1964 the NAACP honored him with its own Spingarn Medal.
Toward the end of his life there was a reevaluation of Wilkins by younger blacks. Recognition was given to the many positive things the NAACP had accomplished for blacks under his leadership and there was a growing understanding of how important he had bee to Black America.
In a final tribute, President Regan ordered American flags flown at half staff on all government buildings and at all installations.