Civil Rights Veteran Was Washington Powerbroker

Roger Wilkins was a 33-year-old lawyer when he was appointed Assistant US Attorney General under President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was the highest post ever held by an African American in an administration. Wilkins went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who helped expose the Watergate scandal, and a distinguished history professor. Host Michel Martin speaks with Wilkins about his life and career, in Tell Me More's "Wisdom Watch" conversation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now, we've been marking Black History Month with a series of short essays from colleagues and past guests about some of the figures they most admire.

Today we speak with one of black history's significant figures, Roger Wilkins. He served key roles in government and journalism. On the government side he was an assistant attorney general in the Lyndon Johnson administration, the one that pushed through the Civil Right Act of 1964. In journalism he worked for The Washington Post and shared a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts to uncover the Watergate scandal. And then he turned to academia, where he was a prize-winning professor of American history at George Mason University.

And he is with us now in our Washington, D.C. studios. Roger Wilkins, thank you so much for joining us.

Professor ROGER WILKINS (George Mason University): You're very welcome.

MARTIN: How did you get interested in civil rights? I know that Roy Wilkins is your uncle, but through your whole career you'd been interested in civil rights and social justice issues. How did you get bitten by that bug?

Prof. WILKINS: Well, I think that you've got part of it. Not only was my uncle head of the NAACP for many years, but my mother became chair of the board of the national YWCA. And she had started on that route from working in the segregated YWCA of Kansas City, Missouri back in the '30s. And when the national organization said we need to have some kind of program about this racial problem, they hired my mother, who had just become a widow. My father had just died.

So she moved - we moved to New York. My uncle lived in a building on Sugar Hill. W.E.B. DuBois lived there and Kenneth Clark lived there and Thurgood Marshall lived there. So when Roy would invite me to dinner, you know, all these giants were in the room. So it went from there.

MARTIN: But when you were a little boy, though, you couldn't possibly have known how significant these men were, and women too. You met Dorothy Height, apparently, the great civil rights leader when you were eight years old, as I recall. But you couldn't have possibly known how important they were, or did you?

Prof. WILKINS: Ms. Height, I knew her as a very sweet young woman who was hired right out of college by my mother. But there's another part of it that has to do with what we're seeing in the Middle East today. I could've - I had a law degree from the University of Michigan. I could've followed the path - I was at a New York law firm. But all of a sudden, these young people started doing things down in the South. And you would look at it and you'd say somebody's going to get killed.

And the kids went to Little Rock. There was that awful picture of those people messing over Elizabeth Eckford as she went into the high school at Little Rock Central. And then I would read Baldwin, who I had just discovered. And with his sizzling dramatic language I got a new depth in my black soul. And so you couldn't say to yourself, well, let those kids do it, they will change (unintelligible). If you were alive, you had to say, I want to do something. I want to become involved. This is important.

MARTIN: You felt infected by that fever. You wanted to be part of it.

Prof. WILKINS: It's the time of your life. You don't miss it.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you, because you joined the Johnson administration when you were 33. Do I have that right?

Prof. WILKINS: Yeah.

MARTIN: About 33 years old. I just wonder, did you feel ambivalence about going into government at that age?

Prof. WILKINS: I went into government working on issues of poverty, and it was called then the Third World, I guess. And particularly I was - I cared about Africa. I came when Kennedy was president. There weren't that many black people in the government at the time. And you could do that work and say, I've got to do something to help. And so I helped and I pushed very, very hard. And I said - I took risks that frightened me, criticizing President Kennedy and Attorney General Kennedy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILKINS: An enraged Attorney General Kennedy said that, he, that green kid - I wasn't green; I was brown - that green kid, he'll never work under this Department of Justice as long as I'm attorney general, and that came true. They maybe mad at you but they discussed what you said.

Ultimately, it is what kind of human being am I? What kind of life am I going to create for myself? Can I stand around and with my two degrees from the University of Michigan and watch other people do the changes? I couldn't be a bystander.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Roger Wilkins. It's our Wisdom Watch conversation. We're talking about his storied career as a professor of history and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a former assistant attorney general.

When you decided to move into journalism after leaving government service, you said several times, I didn't want to be a bystander, I didn't want to be a bystander. A lot of people think being a journalist is the essential bystander. So I was curious why you decided to enter into the world of journalism. You were opinion writing. You had a column. You were known under your own voice, but still.

Mr. WILKINS: My father was a brilliant man. He raised a younger brother and he was a journalist. He had been the only black journalist who was able to get an interview with Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 when he was running for president for the first time. But he had TB, and he was in a TB hospital, a state hospital, for blacks in Missouri. He came out for two or three years. He took me to the paper a lot of times and it was sweet.

There were a few black papers that had a press, its own press. And he managed to get me in just at the time when the press was to start and they'd say, come on Roger, push the button.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILKINS: And I would push that button. That was the it was like magic, you know, this thing go clankety-clankety-clankety-clank and I had done it.

Well, my father died when I was eight. I have missed him more than I can say. But when I had the chance to go into journalism, he had wanted to come to New York and break into the white journalism and he died before he could do that. So the day that I was elected for term as chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, as I sat down in the chairman's seat and I looked up at the roof, and I said this is for you, Dad. That's how I - and why I became a journalist.

MARTIN: Mm. I never knew that. You know, one of the reasons that actually we wanted to talk to you is that, in addition to just wanting to spend some time with you, is that recently we marked the centennial of former President Ronald Reagan's birth and you were a very tough critic of Ronald Reagan's. You were quoted as describing him as a cheerleader for our worst instincts. A man whose major talent is to make us feel good about being selfish and let us pretend that tomorrow will never come.

Mr. WILKINS: I said that?

MARTIN: Yes, you did say that.

Mr. WILKINS: Thank you for telling me.

MARTIN: Do I have this memory right, that he, in fact, he used to call you up because you'd give him the blues and he would call you up and be really upset that you had criticized him?

Mr. WILKINS: I was a big fan of Joe Louis when I was a kid.

MARTIN: The boxer. Mm-hmm.

Mr. WILKINS: Yes. Well, time passed and Joe passed from the scene and then had a sad life at the end. He was a doorman at one of the casinos in Las Vegas and he died. And it was just right at the beginning of Reagan's term first term. And the president had - I can't understand it, but Joe was the kind of he didn't, he wasn't a fighting soldier. He was in the keep-the-troops-entertained so he made lots and lots of fights, you know, exhibitions around. So the president had to sign off on his being buried at the cemetery here.

MARTIN: Arlington?

Mr. WILKINS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WILKINS: And Patricia and I had just gotten married. And as soon as he was buried I said Patricia, I want to go up to pay my tribute to Joe. And she said, of course. Well, Arlington is about as beautiful a place as you can find anywhere in the spring; there's flowers and it's just done brilliantly. And I was up high and I looked and I thought and I said to Patricia, I said boy, you know, I may despise ole Reagan but boy, look what he did.

And she said why don't you write him a letter and tell him so. So I said well, that's a good idea. And so I sent a little short letter. I got a long letter back from Reagan, handwritten. I mean I had never met this man. Now he's president of the United States and he sends me oh, a three or four page handwritten letter about him and Joe and their times and the thoughts and it was really stunning, you know, it was so I wrote him back and said, well, it's really terrific and I'm glad you liked Joe that much but, you know, I really don't agree with a lot of things you do.

I don't agree with the fact that you said - went down to Philadelphia in Mississippi and said made very ugly comments. You've done some other things. I think you - I don't know, you seem so pleasant to me. You ought to talk to some other people, not just me.

So he said, sure. I said we can have a dinner at my house. He said, sure. And then I said well, I can invite some people that you ought to know, an activist here in Washington. Yeah, I'd like to do that, he said. Well, then he said something about South Africa. And by this time I was associate editor of the Washington Star so I had a column. And it was a pretty harsh letter, I mean the column because it said it was, that their program in South Africa was blind and racist, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILKINS: One day he called me up and we talked for an hour. And I have to thank Ronald Reagan for this. Of course, my wife would come and sit by the -sit there right as this thing was going on, and I said well, thank you, Mr. President. It's nice to talk to you and hung the phone up. And she looked at me and she said you are something. There you are arguing with the president of the United States and you never gave up an inch of your honor. And...

MARTIN: No dinner?

Mr. WILKINS: No dinner.

MARTIN: We like to leave this segment with some wisdom. Do you have some wisdom to share?

Mr. WILKINS: I think that we black Americans have to think very hard about the Obama presidency. He is obviously a brilliant man and he is obviously a man of great personal fortitude. But he can't do it all by himself. And just because he's president doesn't mean that there's not a lot of racism in this society.

We've still got to struggle. We can't say let Barack do it. Hey, Superman, take care of that, will you? I'm busy playing golf. No. Can't do that. The kids, our kids are being chewed up in bad school systems. We've got to educate people so they can take care of themselves and we've got to find ways to get people into jobs so they can earn enough.

It's not over. There is a movement. We need some leaders who will get out front and say, hey, it's not done. We got a lot of work to do.

MARTIN: Roger Wilkins, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, professor of history after a long career in government service. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. WILKINS: You're very welcome. I've enjoyed it very much.

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