About two years ago I did long posts about the autobiographies of two civil rights leaders, Booker T. Washington and Walter White. Previously I had read the autobiographies of two of the other black political leaders of national stature, Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. DuBois. This month I finally filled in the next, and in a sense, the last chapter of that story, reading Standing Firm, the autobiography of Roy Wilkins (1901-81), who succeeded White as Executive Secretary of the NAACP in 1955 and held that post for 22 years--the critical years of the civil rights movement. I was not disappointed.
A series of accidents before and during Wilkins's early life gave him the chance to become the man that he did. His family, whom he had traced before he wrote the book, originally hailed from northern Mississippi. Shortly after Roy's birth in 1901, his father's anger over the disrespect his white neighbors showed him boiled over, and he beat up a white farmer who had ordered him to move out of the way. His father, a former slave, promptly got him and his whole family out of town and out of the state, and they took the train to St. Louis. A few years later, Wilkins's mother died of tuberculosis. His father clearly could not take care of him and his two siblings--he really never recovered from this blow--and they passed into the care of a maternal aunt who was married to a railroad worker in St. Paul, Minnesota. St. Paul's black community was too small to make up a ghetto, and Wilkins grew up in a very stable home in an integrated neighborhood. He excelled in school, where a junior high teacher urged him to become a writer, and Wilkins attended and graduated from the University of Minnesota. Ability alone allowed him to do so because, as my own parents discovered in neighboring Wisconsin about a dozen years later, the great state universities of a century ago were almost free to anyone who attended.
Wilkins became involved in college journalism at Minnesota, and after graduating he landed his first and only full-time private sector job at a black newspaper, the Kansas City, Missouri Call. The Jim Crow customs of this new city were a rude shock, although he had already been radicalized, to some extent, by a shocking lynching in Minnesota involving black roustabouts who worked for a circus. He also became active in the local NAACP, and came to the attention of DuBois, then its national leader, and Walter White when they visited Kansas City. In 1931 White asked him to come to New York to become his deputy, and after some negotiations about salary, Wilkins accepted. He and his wife Minnie, who came from the St. Louis Negro aristocracy, moved into a well-known Harlem apartment building where they appear to have remained for the rest of his life.
Wilkins' place within the civil rights movement is distinctive and very important. Unlike DuBois, he, like White, always believed that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution offered American Negroes (as he preferred to call them) everything they needed to enjoy all the benefits of American life. The problem--and a huge problem it was from the 1930s until the mid-1960s, and in many ways beyond--was to secure the rights those documents guaranteed them. Wilkins also remained a lifelong believer in integration, largely, he says, because it had shaped him in his childhood. And he held to those views even though, as the book makes clear, he met very few powerful white people in his long life whom he could unreservedly count on to help. Those views made him a lifelong opponent of both separatists and Communists, from Marcus Garvey in the 1920s through DuBois in his separatist phase in the 1930s to the Black Muslims (whom he hardly mentions in the book) and younger black militants in the 1960s and 1970s. He also opposed separate Black Studies departments in universities or anything else that explicitly favored segregation of the races.
Wilkins is very frank--much more than White--about arguments within the civil rights movement in general and the leadership of the NAACP in particular. While he revered DuBois, he makes it clear that the great intellectual's enormous self-regard and sensitivity had become a trial for the younger generation by the 1930s. He describes in detail how White, late in his life and his tenure, had caused a crisis inside and outside the organization by leaving his long-time wife to marry a thrice-divorced white woman who was also an NAACP activist. This of course appeared to validate the worst fears of white racists, but Wilkins successfully insisted that the organization simply could not repudiate its leader on these grounds without violating all its principles. But beginning around the time of the Second World War, white politicians--and especially American Presidents--become major characters in the story as well. Like White, Wilkins speaks very frankly about all of them, both positively and negatively.
Wilkins seems to me somewhat less favorable to Franklin Roosevelt than White was, perhaps in part because he had less contact with him. He could not forgive Roosevelt for failing to push for anti-lynching legislation, the NAACP's main objective in the 1930s, or for refusing to take on the issue of segregation in the military during the Second World War. But Truman won his support for coming out in favor a a strong civil rights program in 1947, for ordering the desegregation of the armed forces, and above all for favoring a strong civil rights plank at the 1948 Democratic Convention, knowing full well that the delegates from the Deep South would walk out and nominate their own candidate. That was what Lyndon Johnson refused to do in 1964 when he blocked the seating of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at another Democratic convention. Meanwhile, as Wilkins describes, the NAACP had been pursuing a long-term legal strategy to break down segregation in public education, one crafted and executed by Charles Hamilton Houston of Howard University and his student Thurgood Marshall. That campaign began with successful attempts to get black students into southern law schools--on the grounds that they had to be trained in the state where they intended to practice--and culminated, of course, in Brown v. Board of Education and the Supreme Court's unanimous decision in favor of integrated schools in 1954. But that turned out to be the beginning, not the end, of the most difficult period in the civil rights struggle.
In the wake of the Second World War, fought to assure the triumph of democracy against racist dictatorship, Chief Justice Earl Warren, a Californian, had managed to persuade a court that include three southerners and a Kentuckian that segregation belonged on the scrap heap of history. The whites of the Deep South, however, had not gotten that message and were more determined than ever to preserve white supremacy, upon which, they had believed all their lives, their own peace and security depended. During the 1950s, as Wilkins makes very clear, neither the executive under President Eisenhower nor the Congress, dominated by veteran southerners, had much interest in the kind of vigorous steps necessary to implement Brown v. Board of Education. A relatively recent book by David Nichols presents a new and admiring role of Ike's contribution to civil rights, based on his role in the integration of Central High School in Little Rock. It would come as a great surprise by Roy Wilkins, who was appalled--as were white liberals--by Ike's reputed refusal in press conferences to give a definite endorsement to Brown v. Board of Education. In the summer of 1958--after a year of difficult integration at Central High, during which school authorities did nothing to stop a few white students from constantly harassing the handful of black ones--Eisenhower agreed to meet with civil rights leaders including Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They asked Eisenhower to convene an interracial White House conference on civil rights; to have the Justice Department join in some school integration lawsuits in the South; to declare that he would withhold federal money from secgregated institutions, including schools; and to support legal changes that would allow the Justice Department to intervene in a variety of civil rights cases in the South. Eisenhower refused to comment specifically on any of their proposals, and denied that he had the moral authority to change the sitution.
This was, as it turns out, characteristic of the leadership of both parties during the 1950s. Adlai Stevenson had impressed Wilkins when he first met him during the 1952 campaign, but by 1956 Stevenson was among those believing that progress had to be slow to avoid offending the sensibilities of the white South. Lyndon Johnson in 1957 had helped put a new civil rights bill through Congress--largely to make himself a potential presidential candidate--but only after eviscerating it to the point that southern Senators did not find a filibuster necessary. Johnson repeated the same trick in 1960, meanwhile preventing any meaningful change in the Senate filibuster rule, which seemed to be a precondition for the passage of any serious civil rights bill.. Meanwhile, southern state governments were again on the offensive. At least three of them passed laws designed to make it impossible for the NAACP to operate within their borders. Medgar Evers in `1963, it turns out, was not the first NAACP activist in Mississippi to be murdered for asserting his rights as a citizen. The media in the 1950s wasn't much help either, and in 1959, Chet Huntley of NBC News blamed militant Negro leadership for racial problems on the air. To be fair, NBC gave Wilkins some time in which to reply.
During the 1950s, Wilkins had gotten to know Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Like nearly everyone else who ever met Kennedy, Wilkins found him an excellent listener, sympathetic, and genuinely committed to real change. (One of the very rare exceptions, interestingly enough, was Jackie Robinson, who met Kennedy in 1960, reported that the Senator could not look him in the eye, and decided to endorse Richard Nixon instead.) Kennedy displeased Wilkins in 1957 when he sided with Lyndon Johnson on one of the crucial votes to weaken the civil rights bill, but Wilkins was very encouraged by the Democratic platform. Significantly, he was not one of the liberal, white and black, who tried to block the selection of LBJ as vice president at the Los Angeles convention. While he did not yet regard Johnson as an ally on civil rights, he wanted the Democrats to win and he understood that Johnson's selection was crucial to winning some of the votes of southern states. Wilkins, in short, thought like a political pro. The black vote played a key role in that election--as it had in 1948--helping Kennedy take states like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. This was still an era in which one party or the other could swing the black vote by taking strong positions or action on civil rights--a sharp contrast to the present day.
Yet as it turned out, Kennedy turned out to be nearly as disappointing as Eisenhower during the first two years of his term. The filibuster rule survived the convening of the new Congress, and Kennedy declined to send up any civil rights legislation, fearing that such a move would block the rest of his legislative program--which, as it turned out, went nowhere anyway for those first two years. But experience--especially the violent confrontation with the state of Mississippi over the admission of James Meredith to Ole Miss--radicalized the Kennedys somewhat. In the spring of 1963, after the police violence in Birmingham against Martin Luther King's civil disobedience campaign, Kennedy sent up the most sweeping civil rights bill since Reconstruction, calling explicitly for free integrated access to stores, hotels, and restaurants. The southerners deployed to block it, but it was moving through the House of Representatives at the time of JFK's death.
What happened between Lyndon Johnson and Wilkins then was truly extraordinary. From their first meeting, Johnson treated Wilkins, literally, like one of his closest allies. He asked for his help and his counsel in getting the entire civil rights bill passed. (Wilkins repeatedly gives special credit to Clarence Mitchell, for many years the NAACP's chief lobbyist in Washington, for making this happen.) He telephoned Wilkins frequently and at one point asked Wilkins to start calling him whenever he wanted to. Wilkins' calls always went through. In one extraordinary moment during the drive to get the great 1964 Act through the Senate, Johnson reached Wilkins and Clarence Mitchell in the Capitol by having the White House operator dial the pay phone near where they were conferring. This was a President who knew every trick of communicating with Congress.
What had happened? Essentially, I would argue, in that spring of 1964, a series of events--including the assassination of JFK--had united nearly the entire GI generation in the cause of legal racial equality. Twice in the last seven years Congress had passed only token legislation; now, in 1964, more than 2/3 of the Senate--a very bipartisan 2/3, at that--removed the remaining legal barriers to equality. Then, less than a year later, the Voting Rights Act followed in response to King's Selma march. Telling how he listened in person to Johnson's address to Congress calling for that act--which concluded with the words, "We shall overcome"--Wilkins confesses that at that moment, he loved LBJ. Yet he makes clear that the romance was about to come to an end thanks to changes among both whites and blacks.
By 1965 the NAACP remained by far the preeminent civil rights organization in the country, but it had some serious rivals. Wilkins's comments on the rise of direct action and civil disobedience are very interesting. He points out that NAACP chapters had used civil disobedience and sit-ins as early as the 1940s, although the organization as a whole never adopted that tactic. Discussing the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, he argues pointedly that it was the local NAACP (where Rosa Parks worked as a secretary) that had the idea, and that it was they who recruited Martin Luther King, Jr., to be the spokesman for the boycott. The NAACP under his leadership stuck to lawsuits, lobbying in Washington, publicity, and an occasional mass demonstration, and Wilkins liked to think of King's SCLC as acting in a complementary rather than an opposing fashion, but by 1965, the NAACP's leadership was being questioned.
Two new developments now changed the racial climate and the nature of the civil rights movement. The first was the outbreak of urban riots. They had begun in Harlem, in Philadelphia, and elsewhere in the summer of 1964, and Wilkins explains that he did everything he could to try to stop the outbreak, fearing that it might swing the election to Barry Goldwater. But a year later, a much worse riot lasting the better part of a week broke out in Watts, shocking Lyndon Johnson and the white population. Wilkins says again and again that the frustrations of ghetto life simply had to burst forth at that moment but he clearly believes that the violence did his cause much more harm than good. And at the same time, a new, much younger group of civil rights activists stepped forth, led by Stokely Carmaichel of SNCC, who rejected both the American political system as a source of strength and Wilkins's and the NAACP's longstanding alliance with white liberals and called instead for "black power." Wilkins thought the real turning point came in June 1966, during James Meredith's march through Mississippi. When Meredith was wounded by a shotgun blast, SNCC under Carmaichel and CORE under Floyd McKissick essentially took over the march and issued a manifesto attacking President Johnson on various fronts--a manifesto that Wilkins refused to sign. Later that summer, their split broke into the open when Wilkins criticized SNCC for staging a protest of Luci Baines Johnson's wedding, in part because of the war in Vietnam. In the following year, 1967, H. Rap Brown took over from Carmaichel as chairman of SNCC, and huge riots devastated Newark and Detroit. By this time, black activists from the Boom generation had adopted the notion that American democracy was a sham and that black Americans' real allies were in the Third World. To these views Wilkins could never agree.
The riots also destroyed the alliance with LBJ. Wilkins served on the commission he appointed to analyze their causes, and in early 1968 it produced a report declaring that white racism was responsible for the riots and that the US was moving towards two societies, separate and unequal. Johnson, who reportedly had expected the commission to find that a militant conspiracy was responsible, refused to endorse their findings or even to meet with his commissioners after they issued their report. By then he had decided not to run again. He had become a prisoner of the Vietnam war, which had cost him his coalition and cost the Democratic party the White House. In 1969 he gave way to Richard Nixon and Wilkins suddenly felt himself back in the mid-1950s once again. The White House was no longer a friendly place.
What Wilkins does not talk about is just as interesting, at times, as what he does. While Wilkins avows that by the late 1940s he was convinced that Communist influence had to be eliminated from the NAACP, he says almost nothing about that organization's support for the foreign policies of the Cold War, or his own pro forma support of the Vietnam War under LBJ. There is no mention of SNCC's Freedom Summer project in Mississippi in 1964 or of the murder of Michael Schwerner, James Cheney, and Andrew Goodman. There is no mention of the Black Muslims as such and only a few references to Malcolm X--although Wilkins acknowledges that Malcolm was one of the two most effective debaters that black America ever produced. There is not a single mention of the Black Panther Party, even though Wilkins and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark co-authored a short book on the police shooting of Panther Fred Hampton in Chicago. Wilkins declares his strong support for school busing to achieve integration--a step i supported at the time, but which does not seem to me now to have done much good--but he says nothing about affirmative action. (The nation, I am informed by people who know, has never solved the problem of educating its poor children, white, black, or brown.) Last, but not hardly least, I waited in vain for Wilkins's opinion of the man who succeeded him as the recognized principal black civil rights leader in the United States, Jesse Jackson. His name does not appear in the text. I cannot believe that that was accidental.
Wilkins fought for his whole life for principles in which I too believe. Since his death those principles have lost ground, I am afraid, on both sides of the political aisle. But Wilkins and the organization he led were in other ways products of another era. The NAACP had biracial leadership from its founding into the 1960s. Two white brothers, Joel and Arthur Spingarn, served as its first Presidents, and Eleanor Roosevelt and Walter Reuther of the UAW served on its Board of Directors during the 1950s. Today the NAACP board appears to have a few token white members, for want of a better word, but they do not include anyone of national stature. Nor is the current chairman of the NAACP, Leon Russell, routinely quoted in the media on controversies involving race and civil rights, as black leaders were in the past.
Walter White and Roy Wilkins each led the NAACP for more than 20 years, during which their often-restive subordinates deferred to their authority and allowed them to act on their behalf and those of their black fellow citizens. Today's activists distrust organization and have shown no talent for long term strategy. (That was just as true of Occupy as of Black Lives Matter; these trends always cut across racial lines.) The legacy of SNCC seems to have more resonance among today's activists than that of the SNCC, even though SNCC ceased to exist long ago. Looking once again at our racial problems today, I see two kinds. One involves poverty and its consequences, especially in urban areas--and that problem, I think, is definitely an interracial one now, affecting perhaps as many white Trump voters as black Americans. The second involves the police and the criminal justice system, and that one requires legislative changes at the state and federal level, and a long-term, concerted attempt to change police techniques and attitudes to reduce the number of traffic stops that end in needless, senseless fatalities. Neither problem will be solved by a quick series of demonstrations or riots; both require organizations that can investigate, develop solutions, and exert pressure for decades--organizations reminiscent of the NAACP in the first half of the twentieth century. I hope they can arise.