Of all of the key figures in the 1960s civil rights campaigns, Roy Ottoway Wilkins, the leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was not as popular as some of the warriors in the fight for equality. His low-key persona, coupled with his natural ability to work behind the scenes with elected officials in Washington, kept him out of the national spotlight, while more strident, militant voices hogged the attention of the media.
Yvonne Ryan, the managing editor of The Economist’s annual World In publication, details the life and career of Wilkins, the cool and calm elder statesman, who served forty-four years with NAACP as an essential part of the team which achieved significant legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the Voting Rights Act of 1964.
This is the first biography of the rational, pragmatic, and tireless Wilkins (1901-1981) and one wonders why it has taken so long to document his man’s achievements.
A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Wilkins was born on August 30, 1901 to a proud black family; his grandfather, Asberry Wilkins, was a slave who won his freedom when he was fourteen years old.
Roy’s father, William, was the second eldest of five children. Tragedy struck Roy’s mother, Mayfield, who died of tuberculosis, but she wrote a letter to her sister, Elizabeth, before her death, asking for permission to move her young son to St. Paul, Minnesota.
His early years were spent in a modest home of his aunt in a low income, integrated community there.
His college life was marred with a brutal act of white prejudice. On June 15, 1920, three young black men, driving in Duluth, Minnesota, were accused of raping a white woman. Police evidence gathered in the case stated the trio was a part of a six-man gang involved in the deed.
Shortly after their incarceration, a bitter white mob rushed the jail, grabbed the black youths, convicted them in a bogus trial, and hanged them. This was a cruel emotional slap to young Wilkins’ head because he had never witnessed a hanging, which was very common in the South.
Although Wilkins would later be labeled a moderate, that vigilante spirit engulfing the white mob put him to some realizations. “For the first time in my life, I understood what Du Bois had been writing about,” he recalled of the incident. “I found myself thinking of black people as a very vulnerable us – and white people as an unpredictable violent them.”
Once Wilkins entered the University of Minnesota, he was determined to make a difference. He graduated with a degree in sociology in 1923. The writing bug bit him hard, allowing him to write on social and racial issues, as he became the first black reporter on The Minnesota Daily and later became editor of St. Paul Appeal, a black newspaper with a historic tradition on being on the right side of things.
His father notified him of an opportunity as the editor of The Kansas City Call, and his first plum assignment, was the coverage of the NAACP Annual National Convention, this year held in Kansas City. This launched him in certain circles of the Association’s most influential officials.
Wilkins was very proud that he peddled copies of The Crisis, the Association’s publication, as a boy. At age twenty-two, he served as a secretary at the St. Paul branch of the NAACP, and later assumed the same post at the Kansas City organization. Under his leadership, Wilkins undercut the nomination of Judge John Parker to the Supreme Court, declaring the jurist of making racist remarks. The young secretary wielded a blow-torch approach in his Call column to make the public take a second closer look at the bigoted candidate. He waged a similar battle against another conservative, Kansas senator Henry Allen, turning the tide to the victor, George McGill, a Democrat.
Officials at the NAACP paid attention to the triumphs of the young man from the Kansas City office. Walter White, the Association’s assistant secretary, thought Wilkins had the goods, and a friendship developed between them. Armed with a sense of the organization’s historic watchdog past, Wilkins recognized they knew his skill as a motivator, and understanding he was a man who could get things done.
In 1930, W. E. B. Du Bois asked Wilkins to join the NAACP national staff as the business manager of The Crisis, wanting to get some fresh blood in the front offices of the Association.
Beyond the new opportunities involving work, there was a private Roy Wilkins, and matters of intimacy and the heart could be as tangled and complicated as the betrayals and infighting he would endure in the NAACP turf war. He had a brother, Earl, who he once hired as an advertising salesman at The Call, an emotional pairing so deep that they even dated sisters. Wilkins thought about marrying Marvel Jackson, a college acquaintance, and Earl swept her sister, Helen, off her feet and to the altar.
Meanwhile, Marvel moved to New York to work on the staff of The Call, then to The Amsterdam News, involving in the whirlwind of the Big City’s social life. Though she and Wilkins planned to wed, he met Aminda Badeau, a social worker and a recent St. Louis refugee. Later, Wilkins wrote a letter to his beloved which said he had got Badeau pregnant and pledged to remedy the situation. That suited everybody, for Marvel broke off the engagement and Wilkins married Badeau in 1929. However, his family suspected the woman fooled him, because there were no children born to the couple who remained married to her 1981 death.
At this point, the NAACP organization was in turmoil, pitting the administrators and workers into a conflict between the warring camps of Dr. Du Bois and Walter White, over tactics and expenditures. In December 1931, the split worsened and a move was made to oust White with a Du Bois memo to the National Board of Director of the organization, complaining of his rival’s ineffectiveness in his post. Wilkins signed the memo, along with three of his colleagues. The ill-conceived power play fizzled when the Association’s president, Joel Spingarn, agreed to investigate the allegations lodged against White and Mary White Ovington, its chairman and founder.
The book’s author, Ryan, skillfully handles the inner struggles of the Association, choosing not to avoid the trash talk, backbiting, and plotting of Du Bois and White. She talks about the successes of the early group, such as monitoring the pay and treatment of black workers working on federally levee programs in Mississippi and Louisiana. Ryan also explains how the NAACP was too timid to take the lead in the 1931 Scottsboro Boys case, where nine black youths were charged with the rape of two white women on a freight train.
Despite some major skirmishes inside the Association during the 1940s , the organization maintained its mandate to defeat discrimination in the US military, war factories, and municipal housing. The opponents of the NAACP accused it of hypocrisy for pushing black men to fight for the country while being refused citizenship on its shores.
With the cooperation of the NAAC , A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, demanded a March on Washington to protest bias in the war industries and in the armed services.
President Roosevelt saw the planned march as a loaded gun in the tentative calm of the nation’s capital and signed Executive Order 8802, creating a federal committee to end the prejudice in the defense industry and government.
The book chronicles both the minor and major triumphs in the NAACP career of Wilkins, such as the founding of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), by the Association executive, Randolph and Jewish leader Arnold Aronson in 1950, and the 1954 Supreme Court landmark decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education, outlawing racially segregated public schools. The following year, NAACP worked with those who wanted to bring to justice to the killers of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago black youth beaten to death for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi.
While Rev. King’s rise to prominence in the civil rights campaign is noted in Roy Wilkins: The Quiet Revolutionary And The NAACP, the author returns again and again to the public and private feud between the Nobel Prize-winning minister and Wilkins, due to their personal styles.
Rev. King could read the Yellow Pages with gospel gusto and drive a crowd into a frenzy, while Wilkins put the listeners to sleep with his polite, mannered oratory. At every significant event during the 1960s in the long road to equality, the two men took notice of the other, and jockeyed for media attention at the 1963 March on Washington, the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, and the 1966 March Against Fear.
Often, Wilkins was the centerpiece of any civil rights effort to influence elected officials in Washington, because they could deal with his moderate tone rather than hot head militants like H. Rap Brown or Stokely Carmichael. In 1967, he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Johnson. Being an elder statesman from another era, he was ridiculed as an Uncle Tom and a tool of Capitol Hill. Even the young lions of the NAACP rose up against him repeatedly, but he usually outfoxed them until his retirement in 1977 at age 76. The leadership was taken over by Benjamin Hooks.
A year after he left the NAACP, the media accused him of collaborating with the FBI to discredit Rev. King, which he denied. Wilkins died September 9, 1981.
What distinguishes this biography from many of those civil rights warriors is Ryan’s supreme skill at not letting any negative rumors or allegations hijack the memorable achievements of Roy Wilkins. She elevates the life of this disciplined, dignified, complex soul. Wonderfully written and illuminating, this book celebrates a very private man operating in tense public situations under the microscope of the media.