Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression

Roy Ottoway Wilkins

Jason Roe
Kansas City Public Library
  • Date of Birth: August 30, 1901
  • Place of Birth: St. Louis
  • Claim to Fame: reporter and editor for The Call, chief editor of the Crisis, executive director of the NAACP
  • Also Known As: “The Gentle Giant”
  • Spouse: Aminda "Minnie" Badeau 
  • Date of Death: September 8, 1981
  • Place of Death: New York City
  • Cause of Death: kidney failure

On August 30, 1901, Roy Wilkins was born in St. Louis, Missouri. From a modest background, Wilkins would go on to graduate from the University of Minnesota, become the editor of The Call newspaper, and lead the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for more than two decades at the height of the civil rights movement.

Despite possessing college degrees, Roy Wilkins's parents struggled to make ends meet. They had moved to St. Louis so that Roy's father, William Wilkins, could find work. Eventually, William became a common laborer at a brick kiln. Roy's mother, Mayfield Wilkins, died suddenly when he was 4 years old. The three Wilkins children were sent to St. Paul, Minnesota, to live with their aunt and uncle, who were better positioned to care for them.

Roy Wilkins
Roy Wilkins. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

At the urging of his uncle, Wilkins devoted himself to education with the hope of using it to overcome racial prejudice. Unlike many blacks in the U.S., Wilkins attended integrated primary schools and was admitted to a state university, the University of Minnesota. As a college student, Wilkins edited the college newspaper, the Minnesota Daily, and a black newspaper, the St. Paul Appeal.

After graduating in 1923, Wilkins moved to Kansas City to become a reporter for a newspaper that advocated for the local black community, The Call. The weekly was quickly buoyed by Wilkins's regular column, "Talking it Over." He argued against the discriminatory "Jim Crow" laws that segregated blacks throughout the South, within Missouri and Kansas in certain instances, and across much of the rest of the country. Equally as important, he encouraged his readers to do something to resist these laws, specifically by voting against the politicians who sponsored them.

Chester Arthur Franklin, the founder of The Call, began taking the young Wilkins's advice on some editorial matters. Wilkins disparaged Franklin's inclination to put the most sensational and negative headlines on the front page without regard to the newspaper's goals for racial uplift. Instead, Wilkins reasoned that the front page should be devoted to more upbeat news that would strengthen the spirits of the black community. Franklin compromised by mixing the positive stories alongside news of murders, theft, and assault.

By 1929, The Call had one of the largest circulations (nearly 20,000 per week) and the second most technologically advanced printing press of any black newspaper in the nation. It also advanced civil rights by leading successful campaigns to allow blacks to serve on local juries, the desegregation of some residential neighborhoods, and the hiring of blacks at a local bakery.

One of these campaigns helped launch the most prominent phase of Wilkins's career. In 1930, he led a campaign to oppose the reelection of Kansas Senator Henry J. Allen, a former state governor who had recently voted in favor of discriminatory voting laws. Whereas Allen had won 75 percent of the black vote in previous elections, he only won 25 percent of it in 1930 and lost the election. As a result, Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, saw great potential in Wilkins and convinced him to move to New York City to become the NAACP's assistant secretary.

In 1934, Wilkins became chief editor of the NAACP's official newspaper with national circulation, the Crisis. Over the years, Wilkins's ideology merged perfectly with that of the NAACP. He advocated a moderate, non-violent approach to civil rights that emphasized courtroom and legislative victories above more militant actions. When Walter White died in 1955, Wilkins became the executive secretary of the NAACP. During his tenure, the organization's membership flourished to more than 500,000, and by the 1970s its budget exceeded $3 million per year. More importantly, the NAACP's efforts strongly influenced landmark Supreme Court rulings and federal legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1977, Wilkins finally resigned his position at the urging of the NAACP's board of directors, who sought fresh leadership. He remained in New York City until his death of kidney failure in 1981. Although there were hundreds of important civil rights leaders in the 20th century, Roy Wilkins stands out as one of a handful of the most prominent and influential. His distinguished years as reporter and editor for The Call gave local residents a preview of what he would accomplish two decades later when he assumed leadership of the NAACP.


A previous version of this article appears on KCHistory.org: http://kchistory.org/week-kansas-city-history/wilkins-rising