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Roy Wilkins, 1963
On this date, Roy Wilkins, an African American journalist and civil rights activist, was born.
Wilkins was born in St. Louis in 1901, but grew up in the home of an aunt and uncle in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the former Rondo neighborhood, a beloved racially mixed community. Though poor, he was able to attend integrated schools in the city. 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 newspaper) 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 newspaper.
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 that 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 about it. 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. Also in 1934, 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 15 years). In 1945, after serving as an adviser in the War Department, he was 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 that 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, and quickly established himself as one of the most articulate spokesman in the civil rights movement. He testified before countless Congressional hearings, conferred with all the presidents, and wrote extensively for a number of publications. Although Wilkins and the NAACP became more militant in the 1970s, both he and the organization were, nevertheless, subjected to attack by even more radical groups, such as the black Muslims. 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 La Farge Institute, and the Stockbridge School, as well as Peace with Freedom, an 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. 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 African Americans under his leadership, and there was a growing understanding of how important he had been to black America.
Roy Wilkins died in 1981.
The Encyclopedia of African American Heritage
by Susan Altman
Copyright 1997, Facts on File, Inc. New York