by iampunha | 8/30/2008 08:00:00 AM
They got Nat at 31.

They suppressed millions for decades.

They still have to contend with Dr. C.T. Vivian.

They had to serve with 'em.

Rubin Stacy didn't stand a chance.

Ted Radcliffe was born too late.

Myles Horton made his life about them.

Today's honoree ... well, was born today. And there's a little more to it than that.

For Ted Williams, born on Aug. 30, 1918, the greatest hitter who ever lived.

Through integration, just after Brown v. Board, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, before and after the 1968 Summer Olympics protests, up to and including the black power fists raised in silence by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, this man led the NAACP.

Before and after the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others whose names I wish weren't associated with dying for civil rights, this man led the NAACP.

One hundred seven years ago today was born a boy of no consequence then. His story, while unique, is ... not. For many children then had parents who had to work hard and hope for more hard work to do:

The grandson of former slaves from Holly Springs, Miss., [Roy] Wilkins was born in St. Louis, where his father worked himself to sullen exhaustion in a brick kiln across the river. The boy's mother died of tuberculosis (as would his sister and brother) when he was 5, but the children were blessed with a secure and happy upbringing in the St. Paul, Minn., home of their childless Uncle Sam and Aunt Elizabeth. Sam Williams, a railroad steward, taught Wilkins two unforgettable lessons: always to keep his fingernails clipped and clean and to do his best at school, because ''no one can ever steal an education away from a man.''

Father beaten by life, mother dead.

He pressed on:

According to Wilkins, his was, for the most part, a pleasant childhood in a loving family, though not without its trials. His uncle, Sam Williams, worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad, managing the personal railroad car for the company president. The family was far from wealthy, but did not lack any of the basic necessities. Wilkins stayed close to his own “quiet neighborhood” and away from “the turf belonging to the Rice Street Gang, the toughest kids in the city,” where “the word ‘nigger’ was part of the equipment, along with other brickbats.” Despite these constraints, Wilkins would later say that it was in St. Paul that he first learned it was not impossible “for white people and black people to live next door to one another, to get along—even to love one another.”

Not impossible ... only if the majority is not told to feel threatened by the minority. (Fear-mongering in politics is as old as politics.)

Wilkins went on to significant achievement at the University of Minnesota -- in the 1920s. He edited the school paper -- in the 1920s.

Not only had no black person edited the school paper before that, no black person had done much of anything with the school paper.

About a decade later, Roy Wilkins took over the NAACP's monthly magazine.

He succeeded W.E.B. Du Bois.

Tell me you wouldn't be satisfied with your life if you were taking over for someone like W.E.B. Du Bois.

Tell me, even as a joke, that you wouldn't consider your entire life's struggle validated.

Roy Wilkins didn't say the words.

He lived them.

In 1955, Wilkins became the executive secretary of the NAACP, a position whose name changed in 1965 but whose occupant remained the same until 1977.

In between, he organized a march and did some other things. He talked to some presidents about some things and got some awards.

It takes a lot to make the Presidential Medal of Freedom pedestrian, but Roy Wilkins kept on working.


Well, when there's work to be done, do you stop working or do you keep up your momentum and get more done?

Nobody's ever going to hand you a damn thing if they want to keep it to themselves. Roy Wilkins knew that. He knew that from watching his father drag his beaten body home from work. He knew that from visiting the South:

As an editor at the Call, Wilkins waged a campaign to defeat racist Senator Henry J. Allen. This effort caught the attention of Walter White (see), executive secretary of the N.A.A.C.P., who urged Wilkins to move to New York and become his chief assistant in 1931. As White had done, Wilkins went on assignment to investigate lynchings and working conditions for African-Americans in the South. His 1932 report, "Mississippi Slave Labor," is credited with bringing Congressional action to improve the working conditions for blacks in levee labor camps.

Congressional action started because There weren't any Southern senators in the Senate chamber to introduce the matter, but not so much with the anti-lynching action. (The more I read about race relations in the time before the 1960s, and the more I refuse to adopt a historically accurate white-person lens, the more I identify with the people who didn't think nonviolent action would work.)

At 30 years old, Wilkins was doing this. Four years his junior at present, I am nowhere near any of what he did.

This would be deflating if not for how things are better now, if not for the fact that we do not now need a Roy Wilkins as much as we did back then. Yes, you're damn right there are still wrongs to be righted, but we do not now have people fleecing laborers as stridently and rampantly as we did back then. (And if we do, tell me. Never treat my words as authoritative, only investigative.)

But though the situation is not as dire, though we no longer have a president unwilling or unable to face down his party's enfranchised racists, there is still work to do. I have even showcased some of it in previous diaries (google environmental racism).

And if we choose to honor Roy Wilkins' legacy, now a few days removed from the official nomination of Barack Obama to this country's highest office, and arguably this world's most prestigious role, we can look to Wilkins' determination and vision, combine it with John F. Kennedy's call to service and add Barack Obama's oft-quoted advice:

Yes, we can.

Martin Luther King & Roy Wilkins On 1963 Meet The Press

*The University of Minnesota could have exercised more pride in the achievements of Roy Wilkins, but I am willing to let that slide partly because the school gave an opportunity to a black quarterback in the 1970s. That player was Tony Dungy. Yes, that Tony Dungy.