Roger Wilkins on Bearing Witness to the Struggle
From Beyond the Page: The Best of the
Sun Valley Writers' Conference
Welcome to Beyond the Page: The Best of the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference. Over the past 25 years, SVWC has become the gold standard of American literary festivals, bringing together contemporary writing’s brightest stars for their view of the world through a literary lens. Every month, Beyond the Page curates and distills the best talks from the past quarter century at the Writers’ Conference, giving you a front row seat on the kind of knowledge, inspiration, laughter, and meaning that Sun Valley is known for.
In 2002, the late civil rights champion Roger Wilkins gave one of the most memorable talks ever given at the Writers’ Conference. Roger’s great grandfather was enslaved. Two generations later, Roger’s uncle, Roy Wilkins, became the legendary leader of the NAACP for over two decades. Three generations removed from the Mississippi fields, Roger Wilkins played pivotal roles in the civil rights advancements of both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and later, as author, columnist, and professor, became a powerful voice of advocacy and hope for Black people in America.
In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans, and in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, the words of Roger Wilkins, who died in 2017 at the age of 85, have never sounded more relevant, or vital, to the conversation about what kind of great nation America was meant to be, and must still become.
From the interview:
Years ago, I was writing an autobiography and I was about 40, 45. So I asked my mother some questions about our family, and she told me some things I had never heard before. Stories, some of which touched on slavery, stories that were enormously interesting. So I looked at her, my face screwed up and I said, well, mom, why didn’t you tell me that years ago?
Now, my mother is an extremely intelligent person. Phi Beta Kappa, graduate of the University of Minnesota. She is 95 now. But in her career, she was an extraordinarily effective and successful person. She was the first black woman to head the YWCA of the United States. She did for two terms and as far as I can tell, very successfully. And she was a very powerful person, a very powerful personality. So I said, why didn’t you tell me this before? And she looked pensive and she looked sad. She collected her thoughts, and she said, Well, Roger, I guess in our family, we didn’t like to clank our chains.
That was one of the saddest things my mother ever said to me, because as I have contemplated over the years, I realized that it was because the culture had inflicted such sustained brutality on Black people in order to disable us as citizens and to diminish us. That belies the culture told about us and it had seeped into the souls of even the strongest Black people, like my mother. It’s what the great Black historian Carter Woodson said when he talked about the mis-education of Negroes. It required us to cover our shame about slavery and the suspicion that we were descended from people who deserved to be enslaved. So we covered that history with a large blanket, and even extinguished the contours of the lives of our direct ancestors so that they disappeared into a groaning black mass: shame.
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Pulitzer Prize-winning author and distinguished professor Roger Wilkins was born in 1932 in Kansas City, Missouri. His father, a business manager with a prominent black paper, The Kansas City Call, died when Wilkins was a child and the family moved to New York and then to Michigan, where Wilkins spent most of his formative years. Wilkins attended the University of Michigan, receiving his B.A. in 1953 and his J.D. in 1956, interning with Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. Following graduation, Wilkins worked in several capacities as an advocate for justice. Beginning his career as a caseworker in the Ohio Welfare Department, Wilkins went on to work for the U.S. Agency for International Development and then as assistant attorney general under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Wilkins’ interest in legal issues and equality stems partially from his family’s background. His uncle, Roy Wilkins, was executive secretary of the NAACP from 1955 to 1977.
In 1972, Wilkins began writing for the editorial page of The Washington Post just as the Watergate scandal was breaking. His critically informed editorials about the issues leading up to President Richard Nixon’s resignation won him a shared Pulitzer Prize, along with reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and cartoonist Herb Block. He then moved to The New York Times, where he served as the first African American on its editorial board as well as a columnist. Subsequently, Wilkins worked for the Institute for Policy Studies, The Washington Star, National Public Radio and CBS Radio. He continues to be a major commentator and analyst on American public policy and social justice issues.
Wilkins was a history professor at George Mason University. He 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 died in 2017.