Wilkins, Roy Ottoway

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Wilkins, Roy Ottoway

Roy Wilkins was a prominent U.S. Civil Rights leader who served as the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1955 to 1977. Wilkins guided the NAACP during a time when momentous changes improved the civil rights of African-Americans and other racial minorities. Criticized as too conservative and unwilling to shift the NAACP's focus from legal challenges and political Lobbying to the nonviolent direct-action tactics of Dr. martin luther king jr. and black power groups, Wilkins worked with Congress and Presidents john f. kennedy and lyndon b. johnson to secure legislation that changed the status quo on racial inequality.

Roy Ottoway Wilkins was born August 30, 1901, in St. Louis, Missouri. He was abandoned by his father shortly after his mother died and was taken in by an uncle who lived in Duluth, Minnesota. Wilkins later moved to St. Paul and graduated from the University of Minnesota. In 1923, he went to work as a journalist for the Kansas City Call, a newspaper published by and for the African-American community in Kansas City, Missouri. He soon became managing editor of the paper. In 1931, Wilkins was appointed assistant executive secretary of the NAACP, the largest civil rights organization in the United States. His first major campaign was a telegram-and letterwriting protest against comedian Will Rogers, who had used the word "nigger" four times in his premier broadcast over the NBC radio network. As a result, Rogers switched to the less offensive term "darky."

"At first color doesn't mean very much to little children, black or white. Only as they grow older and absorb poisons from adults does color begin to blind them."
—Roy Wilkins

From 1934 to 1949, Wilkins edited The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP. During that period, Wilkins was a trusted adviser and protégé of executive secretary Walter White. The NAACP's strategy for improved civil rights for African-Americans began during the 1920s with a series of lawsuits that contested both the separate-but-equal doctrine of racial Segregation and the denial of voting rights based on race. Led by gifted attorneys that included future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP made steady progress during the 1930s and 1940s. The campaign to end school segregation reached its climax in 1954 with the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873. Wilkins played a major role in preparing the case for trial and appeal. The decision itself did not eliminate racially segregated schools, but it did remove the legal justification for the discriminatory practice.

Wilkins was named executive secretary of the NAACP in 1955, following the death of White. The association proceeded to extend the gains of Brown through more lawsuits, both in the South and, during the 1960s and 1970s, in the North. Until the late 1950s, the NAACP was regarded as a militant organization, uncompromising in its commitment to racial equality. With the birth of the modern Civil Rights Movement, led by Martin Luther King Jr., the NAACP appeared to be more conservative. Where Wilkins and the NAACP leadership believed in using the legislative and judicial process to achieve racial equality, King and his followers favored civil disobedience and other forms of nonviolent direct action.

Although Wilkins and the NAACP leadership were uncomfortable with this approach, Wilkins sought to form alliances with the new leaders. He helped to organize the March on Washington in 1963, which catapulted King to national attention. The NAACP supported many of the sit-ins and marches of the period, but it rarely initiated them. Wilkins preferred to concentrate on the political process.

Wilkins played a major role in the passage of the civil rights act 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000a et seq.), the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973 et seq.), and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (42 U.S.C.A. § 3601 et seq.). He worked with President Johnson and key senators and representatives on these measures.

Militant leaders of the rising Black Power Movement during the late 1960s charged that Wilkins and the NAACP were not radical enough. Wilkins rejected black separatism, seeking instead an integrated, color-blind society. With a plainspoken and laconic demeanor, Wilkins refused to indulge in emotional rhetoric, concentrating instead on making reasoned arguments for racial equality.

In 1977, Wilkins ended his service as executive secretary of the NAACP and was succeeded by benjamin l. hooks. Wilkins died from kidney failure on September 8, 1981, in New York City.

Further readings

Branch, Taylor. 1988. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kluger, Richard. 1976. Simple Justice.New York:Knopf.

O'Neill, William L. 1971. Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960s. New York: Quadrangle Books.

Wilson, Sondra Kathryn, ed. 1999. In Search of Democracy: The NAACP Writings of James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and Roy Wilkins (1920–1977). New York: Oxford Univ. Press.