Roy Ottoway Wilkins
August 30, 1901 – September 8, 1981
Roy Wilkins was born in St. Louis, Missouri but relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota to live with his aunt and uncle. The move occurred when he was around four or five years old and was prompted by his mother’s death from tuberculosis. It was believed that Wilkins’ father, now a widower, would be unable to take care of Wilkins and his two siblings by himself. Thus the three children went to live with their relatives in Rondo, a poor integrated St. Paul neighborhood.
As a student, Wilkins was able to attend the city’s integrated schools and later the University of Minnesota. While majoring in sociology and minoring in journalism, Wilkins worked odd jobs to cover his expenses. He got real-world journalism experience while working as the night editor of the university’s newsletter and editor of the St. Paul Appeal, a Black weekly periodical.
During this period, Wilkins learned about the lynching of three Black men in Duluth, Minnesota. In response, he took his first steps in the fight for civil rights and joined the NAACP. Following his 1923 graduation, Wilkins returned to the city of his birth for a staff position at the top local Black weekly newspaper, the Kansas City Call. The rest of the decade would see Wilkins making positive progress as he became managing editor of the newspaper and married Aminda “Minnie” Badeau.
Wilkins’ membership in the NAACP and his work at the Kansas City Call put him on Walter White’s radar. White who was then the executive secretary of the NAACP, offered Wilkins a job in New York City as his chief assistant. In this role, Wilkins traveled the country working on the anti-lynching campaign and investigating labor camp work conditions. He would fill increasingly larger roles within the organization. First, as editor of The Crisis after W.E.B. Du Bois departed, next as the administrator of internal affairs, and finally as executive secretary following White’s death.
In addition to his work within the NAACP, Wilkins collaborated with and was a member of other national organizations. At the end of the 1940s, he served for one year as the leader of a coalition of local and national civil rights groups. He also co-founded the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a major civil rights lobbying group.
Wilkins’ ascent to the NAACP’s executive secretary position in 1955 coincided with the official start of what would come to be known as the Civil Rights Movement. Under Wilkins’ leadership, the NAACP would continue to provide legal counsel for civil rights cases such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Brown v. Board of Ed. Wilkins was himself a key organizer of the March on Washington and a participant in the Selma to Montgomery Marches. He was also initially involved with the March Against Fear but withdrew after finding himself at odds with the more militant Stokely Carmichael.
As a leader in the nonviolence faction of the Civil Rights Movement and a proponent of lobbying for legal reforms, Wilkins worked within the existing government structure. He testified before Congress on multiple occasions and was an advisor and consultant to the American Presidents who served from the 1960s to the 1980s. Yet, working within the system sometimes put Wilkins at odds with other leaders in the Movement.
The NAACP was focused on achieving racial equality primarily through the courts but eventually became active in direct non-violent protests. Believing in a moderate approach, Wilkins thought Carmichael, SNCC, and the overall Black Power Movement were divisive. And while Wilkins worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. he took issue with King speaking out publicly against the Vietnam War. Yet, he openly criticized the actions and policies of Presidents Nixon and Ford.
Wilkins retired from the NAACP in 1977 and was given the honorary title of Director Emeritus in recognition of his contributions. Roy Wilkins died four years later at the age of 80. He had received numerous awards and honors during his life such as the NAACP Spingarn Medal (1964) and Presidential Medal of Freedom (1967). Multiple memorials were erected and/or named in his memory in Minnesota as well as a park in Queens, New York.
- Fitzgerald, John. 2021. “Wilkins, Roy (1901–1981).” MNopedia. December 3, 2021. https://www.mnopedia.org/person/wilkins-roy-1901-1981.
- “Roy Wilkins, Journalist, and Administrator Born.” 2021. African American Registry. July 25, 2021. https://aaregistry.org/story/roy-wilkins-newspaper-writer-and-national-leader-of-the-naacp/.
- “Roy Wilkins.” 2021. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. September 4, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Roy-Wilkins.
- “Roy Wilkins.” 2021. NAACP. May 11, 2021. https://naacp.org/find-resources/history-explained/civil-rights-leaders/roy-wilkins.
- Whitaker, Matthew C. 2007. “Roy Wilkins (1901-1981).” Blackpast.org. January 21, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/wilkins-roy-1901-1981/.
- “Wilkins, Roy Ottaway.” 2018. The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. June 5, 2018. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/wilkins-roy-ottaway.
Disclosure: Noire Histoir is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for the website to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Noire Histoir will receive commissions for purchases made via any Amazon Affiliate links above.