The Power of One: Roy Wilkins and the Civil Rights Movement

(The following is a story written by Mark Hartsell, editor of the Library’s staff newsletter, The Gazette, for the May-June 2014 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine. The Library exhibition, “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: The Long Struggle for Freedom,” opens June 19 in the Thomas Jefferson Building.)

Rev. Martin Luther King, seated next to NAACP Director Roy Wilkins. 1964. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

Rev. Martin Luther King, seated next to NAACP Director Roy Wilkins. 1964. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

Civil Rights activist Roy Wilkins devoted his life to achieving equal rights under the law for the nation’s African Americans.

The legacy of slavery, Roy Wilkins once wrote, divided African Americans into two camps: victims of bondage who suffered passively, hoping for a better day, and rebels who heaped coals of fire on everything that smacked of inequality. Wilkins belonged among the rebels.

“I have spent my life stoking the fire and shoveling on the coal,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Standing Fast.”

Wilkins, the grandson of Mississippi slaves, devoted more than 50 years of that life to advancing the cause of civil rights, speaking for freedom and marching for justice. He led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during the civil rights movement’s most momentous era—the years of freedom rides and bus boycotts, the March on Washington and the march from Selma, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the murder of Medgar Evers and the police dogs and fire hoses of Birmingham.

Wilkins’ family hailed from Mississippi, but his father was forced to flee to St. Louis after an altercation with a white man—one step, Wilkins recalled, ahead of a lynch rope.

Wilkins was born in St. Louis in 1901, followed closely by a sister and brother. His mother died when he was 5, and relatives contemplated sending the two older children back to Mississippi and the baby to Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Sam in St. Paul, Minn.

Sam wouldn’t hear of it. “I won’t break up a family,” he telegraphed. “Bring all three.” Those nine words changed Wilkins’ life.

Roy Wilkins meets with President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House to discuss strategies for securing passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Prints and Photographs Division.

Roy Wilkins meets with President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House to discuss strategies for securing passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Prints and Photographs Division.

In St. Paul, Wilkins lived in an integrated, working-class neighborhood of Swedish, Norwegian, German and Irish immigrants and attended integrated schools—experiences that later allowed him to view whites as civil-rights allies and to reject militant activism.

Sam emphasized hard work and education. No one can steal an education from a man, he’d say. He also taught Wilkins to keep faith in the goodness of others, that the world was not a wholly hostile place.

“Everything I am or hope to be I owe to him,” Wilkins wrote.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota, Wilkins eventually edited an influential African-American newspaper in Kansas City, where he first encountered widespread segregation. Wilkins’ work drew the attention of NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White, and in 1931 he moved to New York to serve as White’s chief assistant and, later, editor of The Crisis magazine. With the NAACP, Wilkins fearlessly took his cause to the streets. He led many protests, helped organize the historic 1963 March on Washington and participated in marches in Selma, Ala., and Jackson, Miss.

Wilkins mostly sought to force change within the system, through legislation and the courts. He led the legal efforts that culminated with the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine in public schools—a decision, he said, that gave him his greatest satisfaction.

In 1955, Wilkins took over as the NAACP’s director and implemented a strategy designed to get all three branches of the federal government actively working to advance civil rights.

“We wanted Congress and the White House to come out of hiding and line up alongside the Supreme Court on segregation,” he wrote.

Leaders of the March on Washington lock arms as they walk down Constitution Avenue, Aug. 28, 1963, with Martin Luther King Jr., far left, and Roy Wilkins, second from right. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

Leaders of the March on Washington lock arms as they walk down Constitution Avenue, Aug. 28, 1963, with Martin Luther King Jr., far left, and Roy Wilkins,
second from right. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph
Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

The legal cases, protests and marches helped produce historic legislation in the 1960s, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964—a measure Wilkins called a “Magna Carta for the race, a splendid monument for the cause of human rights.”

Wilkins retired from the NAACP in 1977 and died in 1981, leaving behind an America radically changed for the better.

“The only master race is the human race,” he once said, “and we are all, by the grace of God, members of it.”

REMEMBERING THE CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964 

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act and the struggle for racial equality, the Library of Congress will present a new exhibition. “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom” will open on June 19, 2014, and remain on view through June 20, 2015. The exhibition is made possible by a generous grant from Newman’s Own Foundation and with additional support from HISTORY.

Drawn from the Library’s collections, the exhibition will include 200 items, featuring correspondence and documents from civil rights leaders and organizations, images captured by photojournalists and professional photographers, newspapers, drawings, posters and in-depth profiles of key figures in the long process of attaining civil rights.

Audiovisual stations will feature oral-history interviews with participants in the Civil Rights Movement and television clips that brought the struggle for equality into living rooms across the country and around the world. Visitors also will hear songs from the Civil Rights Movement that motivated change, inspired hope and unified people from all walks of life. In addition, HISTORY has produced two videos about the legislation and its impact that will be shown in the exhibition.

Make sure to check back next Thursday for another spotlight on other items from “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: The Long Struggle for Freedom,” as the Library of Congress blog leads up to the June 19 exhibition opening.

Download the May-June 2014 issue of the LCM in its entirety here. You can also view the archives of the Library’s former publication from 1993 to 2011.

One Comment

  1. Dr. Corliss
    May 15, 2014 at 11:38 am

    Thank you for all this vital historical information and for honoring Mr. Wilkins who deserves accolades for the role he played in furthering our country’s ideal of civil rights for all.

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