Roger Wilkins: A Man of Honor for a Tempestuous Time

Robert Borosage

Roger Wilkins has left us, just after his 85th birthday. A great champion of social justice, proud father and good friend, he will be missed.

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, passed away when Roger was eight, but had already impressed upon his son the importance of education and a love of language.

“Great things are expected of you,” he wrote the 2-year-old in a letter, “Never, never forget that.” Roger’s early mentors included his uncle Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall, as both led the NAACP’s fight to end racial segregation.

Educated in public schools in New York City and Grand Rapids, Michigan, Roger attended the University of Michigan, earning BA and law degrees there. In 1960, the excitement of the Kennedy election lured him to Washington and public service.

At a remarkably young age, Roger ascended to the highest circles of government, rising to Assistant Attorney General as Lyndon Johnson was forging the greatest era of liberal reform since FDR. In his autobiography A Man’s Life, Roger wrote of the harsh pressures, the intended and unintended racial slights, and internal struggles and insecurities of that heady position.

In its obituary, the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Wilkins had little personal experience with discrimination.” In fact, Roger bore the scars from making his way 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 first hand 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.

For a time he ran domestic programs at the Ford Foundation, becoming one of the most powerful African Americans in the philanthropic world. Roger then joined the editorial board of the Washington Post, and found his true calling as a writer and journalist. At the Post, his editorials, the reportage of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and the cartoons of Herbert Block on the Watergate scandal that drove Nixon from office earned the paper the Pulitzer Prize. From the Post, Roger moved to the New York Times writing editorials and opinion pieces.

In these rarified positions, Roger pushed against the conventional limits. He called for bold action when caution was too often the watchword. He mentored and protected younger African Americans trying to navigate their way. He pushed hard to open doors and knock down barriers.

“In a sense,” he wrote, I have been an explorer and I sailed as far out into the white world as a black man of my generation could sail.” “I could not stand white people shutting doors in my face, so I pushed through plenty of them.”

After he left the Ford Foundation, more blacks, some women and some younger people were put on the board. Mac Bundy, its president, said, “I didn’t know one man could change an institution as much as Roger did, but he did it.”

At the Justice Department, he was called the “conscience” of the Department. Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee credited him for helping him to see the need for more racial opening at the Washington Post. At the Times, he joined a successful affirmative action lawsuit that drove change at that institution even as it burned his own bridges there.

He was, in his heart, a man of the left. In 1982, he joined the Institute for Policy Studies that I then directed. During the Reagan years, IPS was like a candle flickering in a harsh wind. In many ways, Roger was more comfortable standing against that gale than he had been in the high offices of government.

He joined the Nation’s editorial board. He contributed his stature and his wisdom to friends and advocates from the Children’s Defense Fund to the NAACP, where he became publisher of its Crisis Magazine. And he served a co-chair of the board of the Institute for America’s Future for two decades, helping to build and guide the institution that now has joined with People’s Action to build a national grassroots populist movement.

He galvanized the Free South Africa Movement, organizing daily civil disobedience before the South African embassy in Washington, inspiring the young and the famous to demonstrate and get arrested. He then helped organize Nelson Mandela’s historic trip to the US after his release from Robben Island. Eager to touch the next generation, he became a prestigious professor at George Mason University, inspiring students with his learning and his humanity.

Few have provided greater insight into how racism has scarred this nation. Few wrestled so fiercely with the contradiction between the nation’s ideals and its flawed reality. In his book, Jefferson’s Pillow, Roger offered a raw-to-the-bone portrait of a black man reckoning with the slave owning founders of our nation, the contradictions of a Jefferson, carried as a young boy on a pillow by a slave, writing that “all men are created equal.”

Roger’s integrity would not allow him to simply whitewash the Founder’s acceptance of slavery. His knowledge was deep enough to understand that blacks had helped build this nation from its beginning, even supplying a good portion of Washington’s troops. His mettle was strong enough to claim for African Americans a place as patriots, not exiles, in their own land.

“In a culture that batters us,” he wrote, “learning the real history is vital in helping blacks feel fully human. It also helps us to understand just how deeply American we are, how richly we have given, how much has been taken from us, and how much has yet to be restored.”

For those blessed to have Roger as a friend, he was a mensch. He was the best man at my wedding, and my best friend for over 30 years. He provided wisdom, guidance and cover for projects we launched together. He brought me into the Jesse Jackson campaign in 1984 and we worked together in the historic 1988 run.

We shared stories and jokes; he had a big and wonderful laugh. Our families traveled and played together. My daughter remembers Uncle Roger as the one who always gave her a kiss on the cheek and told her she was beautiful.

Words fail to give full measure of the man – statesman, journalist, writer, philanthropist, activist, organizer, professor, father, husband, friend. He fought with demons his entire life. “My life wasn’t always neat and tidy,” he wrote, “and I didn’t always do the right thing,” but… there were some good things.”

He met the test that he reported Thurgood Marshall wanted applied to his own life: “I hope they’ll say,” referring to future generations, “he did the best he could with what he had.” Roger Wilkins, a man of honor in tempestuous times, surely did that.

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