Roy Wilkins was born August 30, 1901 in St. Louis and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1923 with a degree in sociology. While in college he was night editor for the student newspaper Minnesota Daily and reporter for the St. Paul Appeal. After graduation he took a job at The Call in Kansas City, soon becoming managing editor.
His lifetime work with the NAACP began in 1931 as assistant secretary under Walter White. When W. E. B. DuBois resigned in 1934, Wilkins replaced DuBois as editor of Crisis magazine, a position he held until 1949. He then became administrator of internal affairs, and in 1955 was elected Executive Secretary, the highest staff position, a title changed to Executive Director in 1964.
Wilkins worked to advance civil rights through legislation, frequently testifying before congressional hearings and conferring with presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter. He was one of the organizers of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, was named to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in 1967, and chaired the U. S. Delegation to the International Conference on Human Rights in 1968. He was awarded the NAACP's Spingarn Medal in 1964 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1967.
During a time of increasing militancy, Wilkins was known as a moderate, conciliatory leader, expressing this opinion in The New York Times:
The Negro has to be a superb diplomat and a great strategist. He has to parlay what actual power he has along with the good will of the white majority. He has to devise and pursue those philosophies and activities which will least alienate the white majority opinion. And that doesn't mean that the Negro has to indulge in bootlicking. But he must gain the sympathy of the large majority of the American public. He must also seek to make an identification with the American tradition.Paul Robeson, a frequent target of the anti-communist movement.
Wilkins died in New York City on September 8, 1981 at the age of 80. He was a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity.