Roy Wilkins, who spent his formative years in the Twin Cities, led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1949 to 1977. During those years, the NAACP helped achieve the greatest civil rights advancements in U.S. history. Wilkins favored new laws and legal challenges as the best ways for blacks to gain civil rights.
Wilkins was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1901. When he was five, his mother died of tuberculosis. Feeling that his father could not take care of the children alone, his aunt and uncle in St. Paul took in all three siblings.
In St. Paul Roy attended an integrated school. He later studied at the University of Minnesota (U of M), where he wrote for the Minnesota Daily. Wilkins also edited the Northwestern Bulletin, a weekly started in 1922 by a friend, and then became the editor of the St. Paul Appeal. He joined the St. Paul branch of the NAACP in 1921.
Wilkins graduated from the U of M in 1923. He got a job in Kansas City, Missouri, editing the weekly Kansas City Call. He married Aminda Badeau in 1929. She was a social worker with the Kansas City Urban League.
Wilkins remained involved with the NAACP and was named Assistant Secretary in 1931. In 1934 he succeeded W. E. B. Du Bois as editor of the organization's magazine, The Crisis. Wilkins became NAACP Acting Executive Secretary in 1949. In 1955 he was named Executive Secretary. In 1964 his title was changed to Executive Director. He immediately began implementing his strategy of increased legal action.
Wilkins wrote in his 1982 autobiography, Standing Fast, that his main objective was to get all three branches of government working together for civil rights. Under Wilkins, the organization led legal efforts that contributed to major civil rights victories, such as the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. The ruling outlawed segregation in U.S. public schools.
Over the next decade, more NAACP legal cases-along with marches, protests, and other activities of the movement-led to landmark pieces of legislation. The new laws included the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1964, and 1968, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Wilkins was a key planner of the August 1963 March on Washington. He also participated in the three Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965.
In the mid-1960s, friction was developing in the movement as younger activists began to favor a militant approach. The turning point came in June 1966 when activist James Meredith was shot by a white man while making a solo walk across Mississippi. Meredith had called it the March Against Fear, hoping by his example to help blacks overcome fear and to encourage voter registration.
Wilkins agreed with fellow civil rights leaders that others should continue the march. However, he clashed with activist Stokely Carmichael over how it should proceed. Carmichael drafted a manifesto that Wilkins considered a direct attack on President Lyndon Johnson. Wilkins refused to sign it, and the march went on without him. It was during the rest of the march that Carmichael coined the term "black power." Wilkins thought the term was destructive.
Wilkins continued to oppose the militant faction's tactics and rhetoric. Professor Samuel L. Myers, Jr., director of the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice at the University of Minnesota, pointed out that Wilkins specifically embraced integration as the route toward ending racial discrimination and segregation. His experiences in St. Paul "provided him with a unique set of experiences and insights that perhaps he would not have had if he'd faced stark segregation in his formative years," Myers said. Myers termed this the "Minnesota" approach to civil rights.
The NAACP awarded Wilkins the Spingarn Medal in 1964. In 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson presented him with the country's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Wilkins retired from the NAACP in 1977. He died on September 8, 1981.
Minnesota has several memorials to Wilkins. The St. Paul Civic Center Auditorium was renamed the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in 1984. A memorial to him was placed on the Minnesota State Capitol mall in 1995. The University of Minnesota built Roy Wilkins Hall dormitory in 1996.
Author interview with Professor Samuel L. Myers, Jr., director of the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice, University of Minnesota, January 2013.
Transcript, Roy Wilkins Oral History interview I, April 1, 1969, by Thomas H. Baker, Internet
Copy, LBJ Library. http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/johnson/archives.hom/oralhistory.hom/Wilkins/wilkins.pdf
Wilkins, Roy, and Tom Mathews. Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins. New York: Viking, 1982.
Young, Margaret. Black American Leaders. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1969.
During the March Against Fear in 1966, Roy Wilkins and the NAACP differ with activist Stokely Carmichael over tactics in the struggle for civil rights, with Wilkins stressing the need for constructive, peaceful integration efforts.