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Remembering Roger Wilkins: Civil Rights Lawyer, Columnist And Educator


Roger Wilkins wrote that he was an explorer who sailed as far out into the white world as a black man of his generation could sail. Wilkins was a civil rights lawyer, a newspaper columnist and an educator. He died Sunday in Maryland at age 85. And NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: As a young man with a good job at a New York law firm in 1957, Roger Wilkins didn't need to get involved in the civil rights movement. But he told NPR in 2011 he saw what was going on in Little Rock, Ark., as Central High School was being desegregated.


ROGER WILKINS: And then I would read Baldwin. And with his sizzling, dramatic language, I got a new depth in my black soul.

LIMBONG: That's James Baldwin he's talking about.


WILKINS: And so you couldn't say to yourself, well, let those kids do it. If you were alive, you had to say, I want to do something. I want to become involved. This is important.

LIMBONG: Roger Wilkins was born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1932. As a kid, his one-room segregated school was shut down, so he had to be bused across town to an all-black elementary school. When his father died, he and his mother moved to New York. His uncle was Roy Wilkins, who led the NAACP.


WILKINS: My uncle lived in a building on Sugar Hill. W.E.B. Du Bois lived there. And Kenneth Clark lived there. And Thurgood Marshall lived there. (Laughter) So when Roy would invite me to dinner, you know, these giants were in the room.

LIMBONG: He learned what he could from them and became a lawyer, ending up in Washington, D.C., working under President Johnson to help calm racial tensions in the country. Wilkins made a mid-career shift to journalism. He wrote influential columns for The Washington Post, which along with other reporting by the paper, helped bring down the Nixon administration and win the paper a Pulitzer. He also wrote about the smaller stories, like the sort of loneliness you feel when you're a first or one of a few. For example, an early piece of his was called "A Black At The Gridiron Dinner." The Gridiron Dinner is a fancy-pants event for Washington, D.C., politicians and media types.

He wrote, quote, "there is something about an atmosphere like that that is hard to define but excruciatingly easy for a black man to feel. It is the heavy, almost tangible, clearly visible broad assumption that in places where it counts, America is a white country." Roger Wilkins' last job was at George Mason University, where he taught history and American culture. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLEMAN HAWKINS' "TROUBLE IS A MAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.