Roger Wilkins left us on Saturday, the day he turned 85 years old. A great champion of social justice, a beloved member of the Nation community, a proud father, and a good friend, he will be missed.
In a 1995 article for The Nation titled “Racism Has Its Privileges,” Roger observed, “I know of no blacks, rich or poor, who haven’t been hurt in some measure by the racism in this country.” His own life, one of remarkable accomplishment and success, was testament to that truth.
Born into an educated middle-class family, Roger was raised with high expectations. His father, business manager of The Kansas City Call, a black weekly newspaper in Kansas City, passed away when Roger was 8, but he had already impressed upon his son the importance of education and a love of language. “Great things are expected of you,” he wrote his 2-year-old son in a letter. “Never, never forget that.” Early mentors included his uncle Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall.
Educated in public schools in New York City and Grand Rapids, Michigan, Roger attended the University of Michigan, earning a B.A. and law degree there. In 1960, the excitement of John F. Kennedy’s election lured him to Washington and public service.
At a remarkably young age, Roger ascended to the highest circles of government, serving as assistant attorney general under Lyndon Johnson, then forging the greatest era of liberal reform since Franklin Roosevelt. In his 1982 autobiography, A Man’s Life, Roger wrote of the harsh pressures, the intended and unintended racial slights, and internal struggles and insecurities of that position. A comment from his obituary in The New York Times that “Mr. Wilkins had little personal experience with discrimination” could not have been more wrong. In fact, Roger bore the scars from making his way often as the only black in overwhelmingly white circles of power. As the civil-rights movement drove change from the streets, Roger became its advocate and translator on the inside. There, he pushed against the arrogance, ignorance, and complacency of the powerful. On the streets, he was often scorned as a token or a sellout. The pressures took a toll on him and his family.
In that crucible, Roger learned firsthand the truth about social change. As he wrote, “The civil-rights progress of the Kennedy and Johnson years was not made because enlightened public officials perceived a need and took the lead. It was made because an energized interracial civil-rights movement defined the issues, mobilized public opinion and forced the White House to act.”