Roy Wilkins was an activist who was determined to earn rights for blacks using all legal means of protest while preaching peaceful actions. Though he was born in St. Louis, Missouri, it is Saint Paul, Minnesota, that will always have the honor of claiming Wilkins as its own. In turn, one of the most prominent figures in America’s civil rights movement was proud to call Minnesota’s state capital his home.
From 1932 to 1977, Wilkins served on the NAACP as assistant executive secretary, executive secretary and eventually, the executive director, a post he held for 22 years before retiring. During his tenure at the NAACP, he also succeeded W.E.B. DuBois as editor of Crisis Magazine, the organization’s official publication. He served as an advisor to the War Department during World War II and acted as a consultant to the American delegation at the United Nations conference in San Francisco. He also led the fight to end school segregation.
In addition to displaying his heroism in such movements as the "March on Washington" in 1963, the "Selma to Montgomery March" in 1965, and the "March Against Fear" in 1966, Mr. Wilkins established himself as an articulate spokesman and leader. He testified before numerous congressional hearings, wrote for several publications and was an advisor to United States presidents including John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Wilkins was also instrumental in leading campaigns for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Wilkins’ colleague Joe Rauh described how the leader was as important to the American Civil Rights Movement as Martin Luther King, Jr. "I guess you can say Martin was the front man who changed public opinion," said Rauh. "But Roy was the one able to use that shift in public opinion to bring about legislation and legal rulings that benefited blacks, as well as any number of other people."
Throughout his prestigious career, Wilkins received numerous national accolades for his determined, yet peaceful efforts. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson bestowed Wilkins with the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Perhaps his most notable recognition was the request of President Ronald Reagan to have all government flags flown at half-staff on September 9, 1981, the date of Wilkins’ passing.