Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Roy Wilkins

Roy Wilkins: The Quiet Revolutionary and the NAACP

Yvonne Ryan
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Roy Wilkins
    Book Description:

    Roy Wilkins (1901--1981) spent forty-six years of his life serving the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and led the organization for more than twenty years. Under his leadership, the NAACP spearheaded efforts that contributed to landmark civil rights legislation, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.

    InRoy Wilkins: The Quiet Revolutionary and the NAACP, Yvonne Ryan offers the first biography of this influential activist, as well as an analysis of his significant contributions to civil rights in America. While activists in Alabama were treading the highways between Selma and Montgomery, Wilkins was walking the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., working tirelessly in the background to ensure that the rights they fought for were protected through legislation and court rulings. With his command of congressional procedure and networking expertise, Wilkins was regarded as a strong and trusted presence on Capitol Hill, and received greater access to the Oval Office than any other civil rights leader during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.

    Roy Wilkinsfills a significant gap in the history of the civil rights movement, objectively exploring the career and impact of one of its forgotten leaders. The quiet revolutionary, who spent his life navigating the Washington political system, affirmed the extraordinary and courageous efforts of the many men and women who braved the dangers of the southern streets and challenged injustice to achieve equal rights for all Americans.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4381-1
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    On the morning of September 10, 1981, flags on all government buildings in the United States flew at half-mast to mark the death of Roy Wilkins, former leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the country’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. At Wilkins’s funeral the following day, Vice President George Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy joined nine hundred mourners to listen to eulogies from veterans of the civil rights movement, for whom Wilkins’s passing represented the end of a momentous chapter in the movement’s history. His death had been reported in the nation’s newspapers,...

  4. 1 The Family Firm
    (pp. 5-32)

    Roy Ottoway Wilkins was born at the turn of the twentieth century, on August 31, 1901.¹ (“Ottoway” was a tribute to the doctor who delivered him, but it was possibly too unusual and was discarded as soon as Wilkins could write.) His grandfather, Asberry Wilkins, had been born a slave but had won his freedom when he was fourteen years old at the end of the Civil War. In Holly Springs, Mississippi, where Asberry had worked as a field hand, there was little opportunity for former slaves to make a living, so he became a sharecropper. With his wife, Emma,...

  5. 2 Treading Water
    (pp. 33-52)

    The war years transformed the NAACP almost in spite of itself. By 1946 the Association had 1,073 branches and over 450,000 members, a remarkable increase of over 200,000 during the preceding three years.¹ Southern branches, in particular, showed a surprising vigor. In South Carolina, for example, membership grew from 800 in 1939 to 14,000 in 1948. Through its alliance with labor groups, it had broadened its base, begun to move away from its traditionally middle-class roots, and established itself as the principal, but by no means only, voice for a broad range black interests.² There were hints, however, that the...

  6. 3 A Strategy for Freedom
    (pp. 53-80)

    Shortly after becoming executive secretary of the NAACP in April 1955, Wilkins laid out some ambitious goals for the next few years: “By 1963 [the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation] we definitely expect that segregation in education will be completely out in most areas, and on its way out in the die-hard areas.” He also said he expected all public housing to be desegregated and segregation in private housing to be largely dismantled. Using the desegregation of the armed forces and theBrownruling as examples that progress was being made, Wilkins anticipated “very much less discrimination” in the...

  7. 4 Politics and Protest
    (pp. 81-122)

    As 1960 began, Wilkins’s primary concern was ensuring passage of a new civil rights bill that would extend voting rights. The presidential election due to take place in November of that year promised change only inasmuch as both parties admitted the need for action on civil rights. Unfortunately, neither had the appetite for the fight that would be required to pass any meaningful legislation. When a new civil rights bill was initially proposed in 1959, Wilkins called for the support of NAACP branch officers, but warned them that Lyndon Johnson’s first priority was to maintain a united Democratic Party prior...

  8. 5 All the Way with LBJ
    (pp. 123-158)

    President Kennedy’s death left everything in limbo, and it was far from clear what Lyndon Johnson’s sudden elevation to the Oval Office would mean for the pending legislation. Still, Wilkins tried to reassure NAACP members that the new president was a friend of black Americans. “As Vice-President,” he asserted, “Mr. Johnson has given active personal and affirmative leadership to the equal-opportunity phase of the JFK program.” For proof, Wilkins referred to a speech Johnson made on Memorial Day that year at Gettysburg, which was entirely devoted to a plea for equality for black Americans. “His speech at Gettysburg, PA last...

  9. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  10. 6 A Crisis of Victory
    (pp. 159-176)

    The passage of the Voting Rights Act coincided with Wilkins’s tenth anniversary as head of the NAACP. Under his watch the Association’s general income had tripled; membership had increased from 240,000 at the end of 1954 to 455,150 ten years later, with a high point of over half a million members in 1963; circulation ofThe Crisishad risen by 200 percent; and the staff had expanded from 68 to 125.¹ The Association had seen the passage of momentous pieces of civil rights legislation, survived the best efforts of white resistance to wipe out the Association in the South, and...

  11. 7 The Survivor
    (pp. 177-196)

    Wilkins was tiring of the fight. The continued unrest in the ghettoes, the foiled RAM plan to assassinate him, and the aggressive rhetoric left him feeling “violence well[ing] up around all of us.”¹ He was now in his late sixties and had suffered with ill health intermittently for the past thirty years. Nevertheless, he still refused to consider retirement; he had resisted several internal attempts to remove him and had survived most of his detractors in other groups. But with no succession plan in place, questions were beginning to be raised about who should succeed Wilkins and what the NAACP’s...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 197-200)

    The obituaries and eulogies that appeared after Wilkins’s death spoke of his steady leadership; his quiet, calm, and reasoned persona; and his long dedication to the cause. Some made reference to his productive working relationship with President Johnson. Others referred to his early journalism and his arrest in 1932 as evidence that this urbane, reserved man had, at one point in his life, borne some of the marks of the firebrand activist. Of course there were the inevitable comparisons with Martin Luther King. One editorialist said that King was the heart of the movement, while Wilkins was its mind; another...

  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 201-204)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 205-248)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 249-274)
  16. Index
    (pp. 275-286)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 287-290)