Roger Wilkins, famed civil rights worker, journalist, author, and history and American culture professor at George Mason University, died on March 26 in Kensington, Md., at age 85 in a care facility from complications of dementia.
Wilkins, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was an assistant United States attorney general, ran domestic programs for the Ford Foundation, and wrote editorials for The Washington Post and The New York Times.
His uncle, Roy, a former executive secretary of the NAACP, lived in a building on Sugar Hill in New York city. W.E.B. Du Bois, noted psychologist Kenneth Clark and Thurgood Marshall all lived there. So, when Roy would invite his nephew to dinner, these giants were often in the room.
From the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, Wilkins worked in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, the Ford Foundation, The Washington Post and The New York Times. In his 1982 autobiography, “A Man’s Life,” Wilkins described the frustrations of being “the lead Black in White institutions for 16 years.”
In 1965, President Johnson tapped Wilkins to head the federal Community Relations Service, which was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to mediate racial disputes and foster progress in Black communities.
The New York Times said Johnson told him it would be “the toughest job ever given any Negro in the Federal Government … You have one mandate — to do what is right.”
Because many cities were wrecked by rioting in the mid-1960s, Wilkins advocated efforts to improve conditions there. “We have to change the way people live,” he said in the Times in 1967. “All the rest is Band-Aids and lollipops.”
Wilkins is survived by his wife, Patricia King, and his daughter, Elizabeth Wilkins.