Roy Wilkins spent more than four decades at NAACP and held the top job at the civil rights organization for 22 years, beginning in 1955.
A young journalist
Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1901, Wilkins grew up with his aunt and uncle in St. Paul, Minnesota. While attending the University of Minnesota, he worked as a journalist at the Minnesota Daily and the St. Paul Appeal, a Black newspaper where he served as editor. After graduating with a degree in sociology, he became the editor of the Kansas City Call in 1923, a weekly newspaper serving the Black community of Kansas City, Missouri.
His journalism turned into activism as he challenged Jim Crow laws, and in 1931, he moved to New York City to become the assistant NAACP secretary under Walter Francis White. Three years later, he replaced W.E.B. Du Bois as editor of The Crisis, NAACP's official magazine.
Joining the civil rights movement
In 1950, Wilkins cofounded the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of civil rights groups that included the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council. The coalition has coordinated the national legislative campaign behind every major civil rights law since the 1950s.
"The players in this drama of frustration and indignity are not commas or semicolons in a legislative thesis; they are people, human beings, citizens of the United States of America." — Roy Wilkins
In 1955, Wilkins was named NAACP executive secretary (a title later changed to executive director), holding the position until 1977. One of his first actions at the helm of the organization was to support the Black-owned Tri-State Bank in Memphis, Tennessee, in granting loans to Blacks who were being denied loans at white banks.
Historic marches and victories
Wilkins helped organize the historic March on Washington in August 1963 and participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in 1965 and the March Against Fear in Mississippi in 1966. Under Wilkins's direction, NAACP played a major role in many civil rights victories of the 1950s and 1960s, including Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act.
A staunch believer in nonviolent protest, Wilkins strongly opposed militancy as represented by the Black power movement in the fight for equal rights. He wanted to achieve reform through legislative means and worked with a series of U.S. presidents toward his goals, beginning with President John F. Kennedy and ending with President Jimmy Carter. In 1967, Wilkins was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Lyndon Johnson.
Death and legacy
After stepping down as NAACP executive director in 1977 at the age of 76, Wilkins was honored with the title NAACP Director Emeritus. His autobiography Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins was published in 1982, a year after his death. In his book he calls for treating Black Americans with dignity, writing, "The players in this drama of frustration and indignity are not commas or semicolons in a legislative thesis; they are people, human beings, citizens of the United States of America."
His legacy lives through the center named after him, the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice, established in 1992 at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. The military honored his contributions with the Roy Wilkins Renown Service Award, given to members of the armed forces who embody the spirit of equality and human rights.