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The Power of Now
The memorial service for Roger Wilkins will be held on Saturday, May 20, 2017 at 1:30 p.m. at Robert L. Smith Meeting Room in the Quaker Meeting House and Arts Center at Sidwell Friends School (3825 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20016). A reception will follow at the school. Free parking is available on campus. Directions and a map of the area can be found here, and a map of the campus is here.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) mourns the loss of long-time board member Roger Wilkins. Wilkins championed civil rights for African-Americans for over fifty years, making matters of race and poverty central to his work. He spent his life challenging barriers to equal opportunity for African-Americans, first as a government official in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, then later as a foundation executive, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, an author, and a university professor.
Jack Greenberg (LDF Director-Counsel, 1961-1984), Julius Chambers (LDF Director-Counsel, 1984-1993), and Roger W. Wilkins.
"Lawyer, scholar, consigliere, author - Roger Wilkins was a man of extraordinary gifts with a profound commitment to the cause of equal justice,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the Legal Defense Fund. “He gave decades of service to LDF and supported the work of successive LDF leaders. I knew him as an esteemed elder statesman - a man of deep intellect, warmth and a lovely sense of humor. We shall miss him greatly."
Roger Wilkins with Elaine Jones, who served as LDF's fourth President and Director-Counsel while Wilkins held a leadership position on the board of directors of the organization.
Elaine Jones was LDF President and Director-Counsel during the years that Wilkins held a leadership position on the board of the organization. “Roger Wilkins served as co vice-chair of the LDF board for more than ten years and understood better than most the necessity of LDF's decades long struggle and ultimate success in establishing the legal precedent to support diversity and inclusion, especially in the areas of education and employment,” she recalled. “It was a difficult challenge. However, Roger was a principled and eloquent spokesman in the court of public opinion on behalf of affirmative action. His unwavering support both oral and written informed and shaped public opinion.” Jones added, “I will miss his friendship.”
Wilkins developed an early interest in journalism and the law. His interest in legal issues and equality stems partially from his family's background. His father was a journalist; his mother was the first black national president of the Y.W.C.A. and helped desegregate the organization in the 1960s. Civil rights was in his pedigree. His uncle Roy Wilkins, was executive secretary of the NAACP from 1955 to 1977.
Wilkins attended the University of Michigan and received his B.A. in 1953 and his J.D. three years later in 1956. In law school, one of his early mentors was Thurgood Marshall, then director-counsel of the Legal Defense fund and later the first Black U.S. Supreme Court justice. Wilkins would later serve as co-chair of the LDF board of directors for more than a decade. At his death, he was a board member emeritus with the LDF.
Wilkins began his career fighting against racism and poverty upon graduation from law school, starting his career as a caseworker in the Ohio Welfare Department. He joined the Kennedy administration in 1962 as special assistant to the head of the Agency for International Development and soon joined campaigns for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1965, Wilkins was tapped by President Lyndon B. Johnson to be the administration’s chief troubleshooter on urban racial issues. He became an assistant attorney general, helping to calm the unrest that had swept Black communities in major cities during the height of the 1960’s civil rights movement.
Roger Wilkins when he served as Vice-Chair of the LDF board and of LDF’s Long Range Planning Committee, along with Committee co-chair and former LDF Counsel and philanthropist Lynn Walker Huntley, who passed away in 2015
Wilkins began a new career in journalism in 1972, years after the election of President Richard M. Nixon. He wrote editorials for The Washington Post, wanting to help the paper speak more precisely and more powerfully to the needs of the poor and outcast. However, his brief tenure was consumed by the unfolding Watergate political scandal. His editorials on the scandal that drove Nixon from the presidency, along with reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and cartoons by Herbert Block, helped The Post win the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1973.
Wilkins was also the author of several books, including A Man's Life (1982), Quiet Riots (1988) with Fred Harris, and Jefferson's Pillow (2001). In addition, Wilkins was the publisher of the NAACP's journal, The Crisis.
Wilkins was born on March 25, 1932 in Kansas City, Missouri to Earl and Helen Jackson Wilkins. He is survived by his third wife, Patricia A. King; two daughters and one son; two half-sisters; and two grandsons.
Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute is a multi-disciplinary and collaborative hub within LDF that launches targeted