Among those who know the history of the American civil-rights
movement, Roy Wilkins' name ranks up there with Thurgood Marshall,
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Wilkins was a contemporary of
all three and led the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People (NAACP) during the greatest civil-rights advancements
in United States history.
On Jan. 20, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Wilkins the
Presidential Medal of Freedom. In the Twin Cities, where he grew up,
his name adorns an arena in St. Paul and a dorm on the University of
Minnesota campus, and not much else.
"Unfortunately, the vast majority of students I confront in the
21st century have no clue about who Wilkins was or what he
accomplished," said Samuel L. Myers, Jr., the Roy Wilkins Professor
of Human Relations and Social Justice and the director of the Roy
Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice at the
Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. In an
email response to questions about Wilkins, Myers said "few if any of
the undergraduates I have interviewed for research positions at the
Wilkins Center are able to answer this simple question: 'Who was Roy
Who was Roy Wilkins? He was born in St. Louis and grew up in his
aunt and uncle's home in a low-income, integrated community in St.
Paul. He graduated in 1923 with a degree in sociology from the U of
M, where he also worked on The Minnesota Daily. After graduation, he
worked at a small St. Paul newspaper, the Northwest Bulletin, and
later became editor of St. Paul Appeal, an African-American
newspaper. He later became the editor of the Kansas City Call.
Leader of NAACP
In 1934, Wilkins succeeded W. E. B. DuBois as editor of the
NAACP's magazine, The Crisis. He was named acting executive
secretary of the NAACP in 1949. In 1955, Wilkins was named the
NAACP's executive secretary (the title was later changed to
executive director). One of his first actions was to provide support
to civil-rights activists in Mississippi who were being subjected to
a "credit squeeze" by members of the White Citizens Councils.
Wilkins backed a plan in which black businesses and voluntary
associations shifted their accounts to the black-owned Tri-State
Bank of Memphis. By the end of 1955, about $280,000 had been
deposited in Tri-State, which allowed the bank to extend loans to
blacks who were denied loans by white banks.
Wilkins participated in the March on Washington in 1963, the
Selma-to-Montgomery marches in 1965 and the March Against Fear in
1966. He often testified before congressional hearings and conferred
with Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter. During his
tenure, the NAACP spearheaded efforts that led to civil-rights
victories, including Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights
Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Wilkins fervently opposed the more militant factions of the civil-
rights movement, arguing instead for legislative action. Myers said
this belief can be traced to Wilkins' Minnesota roots.
"He specifically embraced integration as the route toward
dismantling racial discrimination and segregation," Myers said. "His
experience working closely with whites, such as on the editorial
board of the Minnesota Daily, provided him with a unique set of
experiences and insights that perhaps he would not have had if he
faced stark segregation in his formative years. …