Postmaster: If undeliverable, send Form 3579 to The Texas Observer, 600 W. 7th, Austin, Texas 78701 A Last Look at Roy Wilkins By Joe B. Frantz He was a gentle man, with a wry sense of humor and a quiet persuasiveness that went out of style in the riotous 1960s and early 1970s but never lost its effectiveness. He was a single-issue man civil rights for blacks who kept the pressure on the movers and shakers of his era until they responded without ever realizing they had been pressured. He made friends, even of his adversaries. If any of his political opponents disliked him, they still respected him. His only outright rejection came from some of his own people. So when Roy Wilkins died this past month, the media noticed that he was gone and detailed his accomplishments. But the nation held no days of mourning, no pause for homage on a broad scale. Here and there a public figure acknowledged that he was a person out of the ordinary. For more than forty years he was in or near the forefront of the activities of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Under his leadership the NAACP lobbied Senators, Presidents, media, opinion makers of all stripes; it was almost constantly in court, trying to get qualified blacks into Texas law schools, into grade schools in Tennessee and Central High School in Little Rock, into public libraries and public swimming pools and at semi-public lunch counters. Before Wilkins and the NAACP were through, the Congress had passed the 1957 Civil Rights Act, basi Joe Frantz is Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin. 24 OCTOBER 9, 1981 cally a voting rights law and the first significant piece of civil rights legislation in 82 years; the 1960 companion civil rights law; and the Great Society’s landmark acts of 1964, 1965 and 1968. In addition, American jurisprudence had been strengthened with an immense body of court decisions at almost every judicial level that assured the black of right of access to the American dream. One reason for the success of the NAACP was that its leaders had established chapters in all fifty states and in 1,500 cities. The organization could bring a lot of pressure in a hurry on an undecided legislator. It also was non-partisan, though its aims were similar enough to those of whites like Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert Humphrey and Ralph Yarborough that it mostly adopted the same stances that Democratic leaders pursued. Further, the NAACP was basically moderate. It didn’t want to practice surgery on the American system; all it wanted was to give the black his share. To some that latter pursuit was downright revolutionary, and in the late 1940s the state -government of Texas tried to force it to make its membership list known in the state, presumably so that its members could be harried for alleged anti-American leanings. But a fair share in the American dream is what most American groups have wanted, whether farmers, laborers, or women. Only the greedy have wanted the whole pie. Wilkins survived the attacks of the 1930s on the NAACP, when American communists accused the NAACP of being too traditional in its longings.. It survived the witch hunts of the latter 1940s and the 1950s, and it prospered under the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. But then expectations were awakened. Many blacks became impatient at the slowness of judical and legislative progress, and the Rap Browns and Stokely Carmichaels began to attract a more strident following. Wilkins saw the rise of Martin Luther King as an overpowering presence with equanimity, telling one interviewer that the “Negro population of this country tends to give clergymen a little extra edge of adulation and support. But King was murdered into sainthood, while the militants continued to treat Wilkins as an anachronism. He did not let them deter him from his goals, which remained as ever the strengthening of Negro rights throughout the nation. Although the 1970s were largely days of retreat for the NAACP and its concomitant civil rights endeavors, he never complained that history had bypassed him. The last time that I visited with him was at the dedication of the LBJ Presidential Library. I mentioned that the public ceremony had gone off with a happy combination of punctuality and brevity. Characteristically Wilkins answered slyly but gently, “Of course, the program ran off beautifully. They didn’t invite any city or state officials to bring greetings.” Lyndon Johnson summed up Wilkins’ life about as well as anyone on the occasion of a Los Angeles dinner in late 1965 honoring the black leader. Johnson wrote: Dear Roy, When a man finds his mission in life he finds himself. You and your mission long ago became one. You have sought the highest goal justice and the brotherhood of man and you have always put the goal above yourself. Because Roy Wilkins passed this way, humankind has advanced a little farther down its long, tortuous road. He was a small man, a quiet man, a nonconfrontational man who never took a backward step. He touched us in ways that most of us will never realize. Terrains of the Heart and Other Essays on Home by Willie Morris YOKNAPATAWPHA PRESS WATSON & COMPANY BOOKS OPEN TUES-SAT 10-6, SUN 10-4 ANDERSON & COMPANY COFFEE TEA SPICES TWO JEFFERSON SQUARE AUSTIN, TEXAS WM 512 453-1533 Send me your list. Name Street City Zip
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