05 February, 2009
Roy Wilkins was a prominent civil rights activist in the United States from the 1930s to the 1970s. Wilkins was active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and between 1931 and 1934 was assistant NAACP secretary under Walter Francis White. When W. E. B. Du Bois left the organization in 1934, Wilkins replaced him as editor of Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Roy Wilkins on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
In 1955, Roy Wilkins was chosen to be the executive secretary of the NAACP; in 1964 he became the executive director. At the age of 76, he retired. Wilkins was a staunch liberal and proponent of American values during the Cold War, and denounced suspected and actual Communists within the civil rights movement. He has been criticized by some on the left of the civil rights movement for his cautious approach, suspicion of grassroots organization, and conciliatory attitude towards white anticommunism, which was significantly detrimental to the post-war civil rights movement.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Wilkins graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in sociology in 1923. He worked as a journalist at The Minnesota Daily and became editor of St. Paul Appeal, an African-American newspaper. After he graduated he became the editor of the Kansas City Call. In 1929 he married social worker Aminda "Minnie" Badeau; the couple had no children. In 1950, Wilkins—along with A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Arnold Aronson, a leader of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council—founded the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR). LCCR has become the premier civil rights coalition, and has coordinated the national legislative campaign on behalf of every major civil rights law since 1957.
Roy Wilkins as the Executive Secretary of the NAACP in 1963In 1955, Wilkins was named executive secretary (the title was later changed to executive director in 1964) of the NAACP. He had an excellent reputation as an articulate spokesperson for the civil rights movement. One of his first actions was to provide support to civil rights activists in Mississippi who were being subject to a "credit squeeze" by members of the White Citizens Councils.
Wilkins backed a proposal suggested by Dr. T.R.M. Howard of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, who headed the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, a leading civil rights organization in the state. Under the plan, black businesses and voluntary associations shifted their accounts to the black-owned Tri-State Bank of Memphis, Tennessee. By the end of 1955, about $280,000 had been deposited in Tri-State for this purpose. The money enabled Tri-State to extend loans to credit-worthy blacks who were denied loans by white banks.
Wilkins participated in the March on Washington (1963), the Selma to Montgomery marches (1965), and the March Against Fear (1966).
He believed in achieving reform by legislative means; he testified before many Congressional hearings and conferred with Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. Wilkins strongly opposed militancy in the movement for civil rights as represented by the "black power" movement.
Wilkins was also a member of Omega Psi Phi, a fraternity with a civil rights focus, and one of the intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternities established for African Americans.
In 1967, Wilkins was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Lyndon Johnson. During his tenure, the NAACP played a pivotal role in leading the nation into the Civil Rights movement and spearheaded the efforts that led to significant civil rights victories, including Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1977, at the age of 76, Wilkins retired from the NAACP and was succeeded by Benjamin Hooks. Wilkins died September 9, 1981.