Roger Wilkins, a champion for civil rights for 50 years, foundation executive, journalist, author and university professor, died on 26 March 2017 at the age of 85. His daughter Elizabeth confirmed his death, at a care facility, as the cause of complications of dementia.
Wilkins was an assistant United States attorney general, ran domestic programs for the Ford Foundation, wrote editorials for The Washington Post and The New York Times, taught history at George Mason University for nearly 20 years and was associated with people of literature, music, politics, journalism and civil rights.
Roger Wilkins (1932-2017) was born in Kansas City on 25 March to Earl and Helen Jackson Wilkins. He attended a segregated elementary school, and grew up in a middle-class family. His father was a journalist and his mother was the first black national president of the YWCA, and helped desegregate the organization in the 1960s.
After his father died in 1941, his mother moved to Michigan. Graduating from the University of Michigan Law School, Wilkins went to Washington in 1962 to join the John F. Kennedy administration. He became special assistant to the head of the Agency for International Development (USAID). He joined campaigns for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson named him the administration’s chief troubleshooter on urban racial issues. Wilkins became an assistant attorney general. “I am a firm believer in the view that the riots are not the real problem,” Wilkins said, calling for more jobs, housing and help for the poor. “The real threat to American life is our inattention to the really depressed and anguished conditions of the minority group people who live in the ghettos of this country.”
In 1966, he and a Justice Department colleague, went to Chicago to see the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They found King in a railroad flat in a slum, talking to 40 or 50 young gang members about nonviolence. “For hours this went on,” Wilkins was quoted as saying. “There were no photographers there, no newsmen. There was no glory in it. He also kept two assistant attorneys general of the United States waiting for hours while he did this … He was a great man, a great man.”
When Richard M. Nixon became president in 1969, Wilkins said there was a “turning away from the paths of cultural decency” and left the government to join the Ford Foundation in New York. For three years, he oversaw funding for job training, education, drug rehabilitation and other programs.
In his memoir, “A Man’s Life: An Autobiography” (1982), he mentioned his depression, suicidal thoughts and drinking problems, and acknowledged years of of unease with his blackness, and of trying to live up to the expectations of whites. “I often found myself inside rooms with people whose names were Mailer, Vidal, Javits, Kennedy or Bernstein,” he wrote.
In 1972 he began a new career in journalism, writing editorials for The Washington Post. He also began to put aside what he called his “desperate search for white approval.” His editorials on the Watergate 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 joined The Times editorial board in 1974, and in 1977, he and other minority journalists accused The Times in a federal lawsuit of racial discrimination in hiring and promotions. The case was settled for cash and pledges of improvements. He left the newspaper in 1979 and was an associate editor and columnist for The Washington Star in 1980 and 1981.
From 1982 to 1992, Wilkins was a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think tank. From 1988 until his retirement in 2007, he was the Clarence J. Robinson professor in history and American culture at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
Wilkins lived in Washington. His marriages to Eve Tyler and Mary Myers ended in divorce. His third wife, Patricia A. King, a law professor at Georgetown University, survives him. He had two children, Amy and David, from his first marriage, and Elizabeth from his third marriage.
In addition to his memoir, Wilkins wrote “Jefferson’s Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism” (2001). He produced and narrated two PBS documentaries, “Keeping the Faith” (1987) about black churches, and “Throwaway People” (1990), about a poor black neighborhood.
“In a sense,” Wilkins wrote in his 1982 memoir, “I have been an explorer, and I sailed as far out into the white world as a black man of my generation could sail.”
Photograph: Roger Wilkins by Sigrid Estrada