By Yvonne Ryan, University of Kentucky Press, Lexington, 285 pages, $40
As the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 nears, it is appropriate that the first comprehensive biography has been published of Roy Wilkins, the executive director of the NAACP between 1955 and 1977. Perhaps more than any other black leader of his day, Wilkins possessed the diplomacy and gravitas to navigate civil rights legislation through Congress. The book is a useful reminder that Wilkins’ statesmanship was indispensable to the demise of Jim Crow.
Born in 1901, Wilkins was raised in St. Paul, where he was educated in desegregated schools. He then attended the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism and became the first black reporter for the student newspaper, the Minnesota Daily.
During college, Wilkins’ activism was awakened by the brutal 1920 lynching in Duluth of three black men. The incident changed Wilkins, who suddenly found himself “thinking of black people as a very vulnerable us—and white people as an unpredictable violent them.”
Following his college graduation, Wilkins worked as the news editor for The Call, a newspaper that serviced Kansas City’s black community. The author notes that this post was crucial to Wilkins’ development, as he came under the tutelage of the publisher, Charles Franklin, an important mentor and future ally.
As a young journalist in Kansas City, Wilkins became active in the NAACP. His rise to prominence can be traced to 1930, when he helped to spur the campaign to defeat President Herbert Hoover’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court of Judge John Parker, who had made a racist speech. Parker’s nomination failed by one vote in the Senate.
One of the senators who had voted in favor of Parker, Henry Allen, R-Kan., was up for election later in 1930. At the urging of the NAACP’s national office in New York, Wilkins then “launched a similar campaign” against Allen, who was defeated by Democrat George McGill.
According to the author, the success of the Parker and Allen campaigns brought Wilkins to the attention of Walter White, who in 1931 was promoted to Secretary of the NAACP’s national office. White soon hired Wilkins as his assistant.
During his early years in New York, Wilkins interacted extensively with the NAACP’s local branches, “prodding the inactive and supporting the vigorous.” Among other duties: he edited the organization’s monthly periodical, The Crisis; administered anti-lynching campaigns; wrote press releases and prepared the annual report.
Wilkins detested segregation. After he moved to New York, his brother Earl died at age 35 and was buried in a segregated graveyard. As described by the author, Wilkins was angered by this indignity for the rest of his life.
One of Wilkins’ early triumphs in the national office involved an investigation he undertook in Mississippi to probe allegations that black workers on federally-funded levee projects were being discriminated against. He uncovered shocking working conditions for blacks, including daily pay of only $1 to $2 for 18-hour shifts and six-day work weeks. The NAACP publicized the findings. Shortly thereafter, the War Department announced that the workers “would receive a guaranteed minimum wage and reduced working hours.”
Throughout the book, the author recounts the various internal conflicts and external rivalries that afflicted the NAACP. Internally, bureaucratic politics in the national office never seemed to abate. Local branches chafed at the control exercised by the national office, which depended heavily on the local branches for funding. Externally, the NAACP battled constantly with other organizations for prominence. And because of the fear of communism, the organization distanced itself from causes where the NAACP and leftists should have been allied.
One such cause was labor. During the Franklin Roosevelt administration, the NAACP missed several chances to partner with labor unions in fighting segregation and injustice. One battle the group joined, however, involved supporting the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’ planned march on Washington in 1941 to protest discrimination in factories producing military hardware. The effort persuaded Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, which established the Fair Employment Practices Committee to “combat discrimination in the defense industry and government.” As noted by the author, the FEPC was the first “mandate against discrimination” issued by the federal government since the Civil Rights Act of 1875.
This effort aided black service personnel to make meaningful contributions in World War II. In 1939, the armed forces employed just 7,600 blacks, who were relegated to limited duty. In the Navy, blacks could only serve in the mess. The author recounts that, after the FEPC was established, all military units were opened to blacks, though still on a segregated basis. By the end of the war, approximately one million blacks had served their country. During the war years, the NAACP’s membership nearly doubled in size, to 460,000 members.
One of the strengths of the book is the description of the NAACP’s struggle for direction after the war. In the 1950s, the NAACP’s traditional “focus on litigation and legislation was no longer enough to satisfy its members’ impatient desire for change.” By the mid-1950s, rival civil rights organizations and leaders gained prominence through boycotts, marches, and demonstrations—methods that Wilkins and the NAACP leadership often eschewed.
Another strength of the book is the author’s recounting of the struggles that the NAACP faced in the Deep South after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. In the wake of Brown, several states tried to evict the NAACP through legislation, intimidation and mass arrests. This retribution strained the resources and resolve of the NAACP, which paid the legal expenses of hundreds of members victimized by the harassment. Thus, in its seeming moment of triumph, the NAACP faced extinction in those parts of the country where it was most needed.
Wilkins’ forte was legislative accomplishment. The author notes that, through Wilkins’ leadership of the NAACP and founding of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, he was able to coordinate the national legislative campaign in support of each federal civil rights law enacted between 1957 and the mid-1970s. An articulate speaker, he testified before congressional committees, lobbied legislators and conferred with five presidents. His national standing reached its zenith during the administration of President Lyndon Johnson who, with Wilkins’ support, broke the South’s stranglehold on Congress and gained passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As recounted by the author, Wilkins’ final chapter at the NAACP was regrettable. Like Walter White before him, Wilkins refused to retire gracefully, openly warring with the board until stepping down at the age of 75. But he “preach[ed] integration to the last.” Upon his death in 1981, Wilkins’ funeral was held in a predominantly white church and he was buried by a white funeral home.
Jeffrey Winn is a partner at Sedgwick.