On August 30, 1901, Roy O. Wilkins was born in St. Louis, Missouri. From a modest background, Wilkins would go on to graduate from the University of Minnesota, become the editor of the Kansas City Call newspaper, and lead the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for more than two decades at the height of the civil rights movement.
Despite possessing college degrees, Roy Wilkins's parents struggled to make ends meet. They had moved to St. Louis so that Roy's father, William Wilkins, could find work. Eventually, William became a common laborer at a brick kiln. Roy's mother, Mayfield Wilkins, died suddenly when he was four years old. The three Wilkins children were sent to St. Paul, Minnesota to live with their aunt and uncle who were better able to care for them.
At the urging of his uncle, Wilkins devoted himself to education with the hope of using it to overcome racial prejudice. Unlike many blacks in the U.S., Wilkins attended integrated primary schools and was allowed to attend a state university, the University of Minnesota. As a college student, Wilkins edited the college newspaper, the Minnesota Daily, and a black newspaper, the St. Paul Appeal.
After graduating in 1923, Wilkins moved to Kansas City to become a reporter for a newspaper that advocated for the local black community, the Kansas City Call. The weekly was quickly buoyed by Wilkins's regular column, "Talking it Over." He argued against the discriminatory "Jim Crow" laws that segregated blacks throughout the South, within Missouri and Kansas in certain instances, and across much of the rest of the country to varying degrees. Equally as important, he encouraged his readers to do something to resist these laws; by collectively voting against the politicians who sponsored them.
Chester Arthur Franklin, the founder of the Call, began taking the young Wilkins's advice on some editorial matters. Wilkins disparaged Franklin's inclination to put the most sensational and negative headlines on the front page without regard to the newspaper's goals for racial uplift. Instead, Wilkins reasoned that the front page should be devoted to more upbeat news that would strengthen the spirits of the black community. Franklin compromised by mixing the positive stories alongside news of murders, theft, and assault.
By 1929, the Call had one of the largest circulations (nearly 20,000 per week) and the second most technologically advanced printing press of any black newspaper in the nation. The Call also advanced civil rights by leading successful campaigns to allow blacks to serve on local juries, the desegregation of some residential neighborhoods, and the hiring of blacks at a local bakery.
One of these campaigns helped launch the most prominent phase of Wilkins's career. In 1930, he led a campaign to oppose the reelection of Kansas Senator Henry J. Allen, a former state governor who had recently voted in favor of discriminatory voting laws. Whereas Allen had won 75% of the black vote in previous elections, he only won 25% of it in 1930 and lost the election. As a result, Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, saw great potential in Wilkins and convinced him to move to New York City to become the NAACP's assistant secretary.
In 1934, Wilkins became chief editor of the NAACP's official newspaper with national circulation, the Crisis. Over the years, Wilkins's ideology merged perfectly with that of the NAACP. He advocated a moderate, non-violent approach to civil rights that emphasized courtroom and legislative victories above more militant actions. When Walter White died in 1955, Wilkins became the executive secretary of the NAACP. During his tenure, the organization's membership flourished, rising to more than 500,000. By the 1970s, its budget exceeded $3 million per year. More importantly, the NAACP's efforts strongly influenced landmark Supreme Court rulings and federal legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1977, Wilkins finally resigned his position at the urging of the NAACP's board of directors, who sought fresh leadership. He remained in New York City until his death of kidney failure in 1981. While there were hundreds of important civil rights leaders in the 20th century, Roy Wilkins stands out as one of a handful of the most prominent and influential. His distinguished years as reporter and editor for the Kansas City Call gave local residents a preview of what he would accomplish two decades later when he assumed leadership of the NAACP.
Read a full biographical sketch of Roy Wilkins (1901-1981), journalist and civil rights leader, by David Conrads; prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library.
Visit the Kansas City Call’s official website.
Check out the following books and articles about Roy Wilkins held by the Kansas City Public Library:
- "Testimonial in K.C.K. to Honor Roy Wilkins," in the Kansas City Star, April 27, 1976; in an interview, Wilkins discusses his years in Kansas City and how he got involved in the civil rights movement.
- Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins, by Roy Wilkins.
Continue researching Roy Wilkins using archival material held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
- Ramos Vertical File: Black Americans--Kansas City, Missouri
- Ramos Vertical File List: Wilkins, Roy
- Vertical File: Newspapers – Kansas City Call
- Vertical File: Buildings – Kansas City Call; focusing on the building that housed the Call
Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, & Kenneth H. Winn, ed, Dictionary of Missouri Biography (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 798-800.
David Conrads, "Biography of Roy Wilkins (1901-1981), Journalist and Civil Rights Leader," prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library.
Charles E. Coulter, Take Up the Black Man’s Burden: Kansas City’s African American Communities, 1865-1939 (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006), 111-113.
Rick Montgomery and Shirl Kasper, Kansas City: An American Story (Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 1999), 198-199.
Sondra K. Wilson, In Search of Democracy: The NAACP Writings of James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and Roy Wilkins (1920-1977) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 244.