Roy Wilkins: The Quiet Revolutionary and the NAACP

Roy Wilkins: The Quiet Revolutionary and the NAACP

Roy Wilkins: The Quiet Revolutionary and the NAACP

Roy Wilkins: The Quiet Revolutionary and the NAACP


Roy Wilkins (1901--1981) spent forty-six years of his life serving the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and led the organization for more than twenty years. Under his leadership, the NAACP spearheaded efforts that contributed to landmark civil rights legislation, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.

In Roy Wilkins: The Quiet Revolutionary and the NAACP, Yvonne Ryan offers the first biography of this influential activist, as well as an analysis of his significant contributions to civil rights in America. While activists in Alabama were treading the highways between Selma and Montgomery, Wilkins was walking the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., working tirelessly in the background to ensure that the rights they fought for were protected through legislation and court rulings. With his command of congressional procedure and networking expertise, Wilkins was regarded as a strong and trusted presence on Capitol Hill, and received greater access to the Oval Office than any other civil rights leader during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Roy Wilkins fills a significant gap in the history of the civil rights movement, objectively exploring the career and impact of one of its forgotten leaders. The quiet revolutionary, who spent his life navigating the Washington political system, affirmed the extraordinary and courageous efforts of the many men and women who braved the dangers of the southern streets and challenged injustice to achieve equal rights for all Americans.


On the morning of September 10, 1981, flags on all government buildings in the United States flew at half-mast to mark the death of Roy Wilkins, former leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the country’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. At Wilkins’s funeral the following day, Vice President George Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy joined nine hundred mourners to listen to eulogies from veterans of the civil rights movement, for whom Wilkins’s passing represented the end of a momentous chapter in the movement’s history. His death had been reported in the nation’s newspapers, whose editorials paid tribute to his achievements and his “cool, solid” leadership. But even as soprano Leontyne Price sang “We Shall Overcome” over his coffin, Wilkins was fading from the public consciousness, his achievements and contributions to a crucial period in American history nearly forgotten.

Many of Wilkins’s colleagues and peers, including Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP’s flamboyant and charismatic general counsel, and Walter White, Wilkins’s predecessor, have been the subject of scholarly attention; but Wilkins’s contribution to the civil rights movement has so far been ignored in the scholarly examinations of this important period. It was, in a way, his misfortune to lead the naacp during a period that gave rise to many charismatic figures, including Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X, who have made compelling subjects for historians and, in King’s case, still provide a philosophical and moral standard by which every other leader is judged. Wilkins lacked the oratorical skills that could lift an audience, in part because he appeared to lack the passion to paint a vision of freedom. Instead, he often appeared aloof, patrician, and urbane: more like a sophisticated chief executive of a multinational corporation than of an organization dedicated to righting a set of fundamental injustices.

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