As executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1955 to 1977, Roy Wilkins collaborated with Martin Luther King on many of the major campaigns of the civil rights movement. Although Wilkins favored a legal approach to achieving racial equality over King’s nonviolent direct action campaigns, the two leaders recognized that both methods were critical to advancing the civil rights cause. On the occasion of Wilkins’ 30th anniversary with the NAACP, King wrote to him: “You have proved to be one of the great leaders of our time. Through your efficiency as an administrator, your genuine humanitarian concern, and your unswerving devotion to the principles of freedom and human dignity, you have carved for yourself an imperishable niche in the annals of contemporary history” (King, 3 January 1962).
Wilkins was born on 30 August 1901, in St. Louis, Missouri. Raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, Wilkins attended an integrated high school and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1923. While in college he was shocked to learn of the lynching of three black men in nearby Duluth, and became dedicated to the cause of civil rights. Wilkins joined the NAACP, and after graduating, took a job at the Kansas City Call, an influential black newspaper. His editorial work captured the attention of then NAACP executive secretary Walter White, who brought him to New York as his chief assistant in 1931. In this capacity Wilkins investigated working conditions for southern blacks in Mississippi River levee labor camps and advocated anti-lynching laws. In 1934 Wilkins succeeded W. E. B. Du Bois as editor of The Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine. Later Wilkins served as the NAACP’s administrator of internal affairs. When White died in 1955, Wilkins was selected to replace him.
In the second month of the Montgomery bus boycott, Wilkins sent King a donation to aid the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) in its efforts. By February 1956, three months into the boycott, the NAACP had offered the MIA legal counsel and urged chapters to raise funds for the boycott. King was “quite conscious of [the MIA’s] dependence on the NAACP,” whose legal support was instrumental in allowing the boycott to continue (Papers 3:244). King wrote to Wilkins, “I have said to our people all along that the great victories of the Negro have been gained through the assiduous labor of the NAACP” (Papers 3:244).
Wilkins took pride in his organization’s diligent legal work and institutional presence. Although he recognized that “the Montgomery protest … caught the eyes and hearts of the world and probably stirred more unity and pride among Negroes than anything that has happened in a quarter-century,” he believed that “the thing which won the Montgomery case was not the walking of the brave people, but a decision in the Supreme Court … secured through the skill of [an] NAACP lawyer” (Wilkins, 14 February 1957). In 1963, following the assassination of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, Wilkins was angered by King’s decision to launch a fundraiser for his own organization as a memorial to the slain civil rights leader. King’s plans for the fundraiser were dropped, and the two men were able to make common cause to help organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom several weeks later.
Despite their private struggles, the two leaders were always careful to publicly stress their cooperation and mutual admiration. King told one reporter: “I think we can work together in a very cooperative and creative manner. There need be no conflict” (King, “TV Interview”). Wilkins similarly praised King’s work, acknowledging that King’s Birmingham Campaign had “made the nation realize that at last the crisis had arrived” (Wilkins, 23 July 1963).
Like many moderate civil rights leaders, Wilkins disagreed with King’s decision to speak out against the Vietnam War, and went as far as to send a memorandum to NAACP chapters instructing them not to use the NAACP’s name during demonstrations against the war. Despite tensions over the war, the two leaders remained closely aligned in their commitment to integration and fought to counter rising calls for “Black Power.”
In 1967 Wilkins was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to serve on his National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, which was charged with investigating the causes of urban riots. The commission’s report, released 29 February 1968, warned: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal” (Herbers, “Panel on Civil Disorders”). Although King called the commission’s findings “timely,” he argued that the recommendations “have been made before almost to the last detail and have been ignored almost to the last detail” (Zion, “Rights Leaders”).
In the last two months of King’s life, King and Wilkins both lent their support to the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. Wilkins’ speech to the workers drew a crowd of several thousand people. After King’s assassination, Wilkins continued to lead the NAACP for nearly a decade. Throughout the 1970s he was critical of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, writing in his autobiography: “I thought Mr. Nixon would try to be President of all the people; instead, he allied himself with the worst enemies of black children” (Wilkins, Standing, 339). The 1970s were also turbulent times for the NAACP, as several key national staff passed away or retired. Wilkins retired from the NAACP in 1977, and died in September 1981.
John Herbers, “Panel on Civil Disorders Calls for Drastic Action to Avoid 2-Society Nation,” New York Times, 1 March 1968.
King, Address at the Fiftieth Annual NAACP Convention, 17 July 1959, in Papers 5:245–250.
King, “Remarks in Acceptance of the Forty-second Spingarn Medal at the Forty-eighth Annual NAACP Convention,” 28 June 1957, in Papers 4:228–233.
King, “TV interview with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Baltimore Afro American, 4 March 1961.
King to Wilkins, 28 January 1956, in Papers 3:108–109.
King to Wilkins, 1 May 1956, in Papers 3:243–244.
King to Wilkins, 3 January 1962, NAACPP-DLC.
Roger Wilkins, A Man’s Life, 1982.
Wilkins, Interview on “For Freedom Now,” 23 July 1963, MLKJP-GAMK.
Wilkins and Mathews, Standing Fast, 1982.
Wilkins to Barbee William Dunham, 14 February 1957, NAACPP-DLC.
Wilkins to King, 22 February 1956, in Papers 3:134–135.
Sidney E. Zion, “Rights Leaders Support Criticism of Whites,” New York Times, 2 March 1968.