Roy Wilkins was exec¬ utive secretary for the NAACP from 1949 to 1977, making him the leader of one of the most powerful African-Ameri¬ can associations through the turbulent years of the civil rights movement. He was born in St. Louis,
Missouri, but was raised by his aunt and uncle in St. Paul, Minnesota after his mother died of tuber¬ culosis. Graduating from the University of Min¬ nesota, where he’d edited the school news¬ paper and the St. Paul Appeal, Wilkins took a job on the Kansas City Call. He volun¬ teered with the NAACP throughout his col¬ lege career, but it wasn’t until 1931 that Wilkins left the Call to join the NAACP as assistant executive secretary under Walter White.
In agreement with the established agen¬ da of the NAACP, Wilkins supported desegregation on all levels. He was a writer who reported on the violence so prevalent against African-Americans, and he suc¬ ceeded W.E.B. Du Bois (see no. 32) as edi¬ tor of Crisis in 1934.
In 1949, when White took a leave of absence, Wilkins stepped in as acting secre¬ tary, and even after White’s return, retained the authority to accomplish many of the dai¬ ly duties of the job. In 1955, after White’s death, Wilkins took up the role of executive secretary again, this time keeping the post for two decades and moving the NAACP through its delicate transition from leading civil rights organization to its new position as one among many organizations, including the militant Black Panthers and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
When young people were being arrested for sit-ins which peacefully protested the segregation of public lunch counters, Wilkins not only request¬ ed that the NAACP post bail, he submitted him¬ self to arrest. In his own words: “We have always used persuasion through various means of politi¬ cal and economic pres¬ sure, but now we’re going to use it much more intensely than in the past because the membership has become restless over the slow pace of the civil rights proceedings.”
Wilkins was one of the chief organizers of the massive March on Washington in 1963. Helping A. Philip Randolph (see no. 48) bring 225,000 people out to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (see no. 91) speak in support of civil rights, Wilkins waged one of the most successful protests in American history. He put the association’s support behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and chaired the momentous Leader¬ ship Conference on Civil Rights.
After riots broke out into the Watts dis¬ trict of Los Angeles in 1965, Wilkins was one of the members of the Kemer Commis¬ sion, organized to analyze the social causes. They brought this statement to the fore of the American mind: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal….” Attacking the social roots of unequal societies, Wilkins and the NAACP supported the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
Wilkins retired from the NAACP in 1977, succeeded by executive secretary Benjamin Hooks, who followed him in the fight for equality in America.