JAMES BALDWIN CLAIMS to have "earned the right" to tell us "that this Republic is a total liar and
has never contained the remotest possibility, let alone desire, to let my people go." In reviewing Roger Wilkins' autobiography, A Man's Life (Book World, June 6), Baldwin points to the Lincoln Memorial as "a pious fraud," part "of the American piety, which is nothing less than a Sunday School apology for genocide." And, he contends: "let the record show, we went the route . . ." but "blacks have never had a president, in these yet to be United States, who cared whether they lived or died."
Roger Wilkins' uncle, the long-time leader of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins, is indeed one who "went the route," including the great assemblies he led in front of the Lincoln Memorial and his work with seven presidents. Yet the record of more than 50 years of struggle for civil rights, as Roy Wilkins sums it up in his autobiography, Standing Fast, comes to a very different conclusion.
From his happy childhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, through six decades of steady hard work, "of short as well as long jumps, of disappointment--and of sweet success," to the last days of his life and the last page of his book, Wilkins stood fast in his faith in those American pieties Baldwin seeks to puncture. In his last lines, Wilkins wrote that he would die believing "in our country" and "our Constitution" and believing "that the Declaration of Independence meant what it said."
The route Roy Wilkins traveled, about 100,000 miles a year, "Up in Harlem, Down in the Delta," took him to Alabama in defense of the Scottsboro Boys in the early 1930s, to jail in Mississippi with Medgar Evers in the 1950s, to most of the 1,200 NAACP branches (with a half-million members) in 50 states, and back and forth to Washington, D.C., from NAACP headquarters in New York. Along the way, blacks continued to be lynched, and his friend and fellow NAACP leader Medgar Evers was murdered. "If there was one moment in my life when I hated whites, that was it," Wilkins wrote. Toward the end, the congressional and presidential action he sought so long came to pass.
Presidents let him down, especially Roosevelt and Eisenhower. But there was also Harry Truman, who listened to the accounts of postwar violence against Negroes, clenched his fist and vowed, "My God, I had no idea that things were as terrible as that. We've got to do something." Wilkins found Truman "direct where Roosevelt had been slippery."
At the NAACP's 38th convention, in 1947, to a large crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Truman promised action to secure the rights of all Americans, and Wilkins believed him when the president added: "When I say all Americans, I mean all Americans." Truman's executive orders against discrimination in the federal civil service and in the armed forces soon followed.
When John Kennedy delayed a promised drive for civil rights legislation in favor of further executive action, Wilkins accused the new administration of smoothing "Unguentine on a sting burn, even though . . . it cannot do anything about a broken pelvis." Two years later, after the violence in Birmingham and Jackson, Kennedy called for a far-reaching civil rights bill and at last presented the "moral issue . . . as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution." Wilkins said: "This was the message I had been waiting to hear from him."
He did not have to wait long for Lyndon Johnson. A few days after Kennedy's assassination, Johnson called Wilkins to the White House, pulled his chair within inches of Wilkins' knees, poked his finger at him and said with mesmerizing power, "I want that bill passed." With the president pressing at every point, telephoning Wilkins "to get down here and do some civil righting" when more lobbying was needed, that whole Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Wilkins considered it "a Magna Carta for the race."
In 1965, after the Selma march, Johnson called on a joint session of Congress to enact a second strong civil rights act, finally enforcing the right to vote. The cause of American Negroes, the president said, "must be our cause, too. . . . And we shall overcome." To his right and left in the galleries, Wilkins found men and women with eyes full of tears. "I had waited all my life to hear a President of the United States talk that way," he wrote. He found Johnson "sentimental, old-fashioned, manipulating, but at bottom somehow sincere." Wilkins added: "And at that moment, I confess, I loved L.B.J."
Roy Wilkins noted that he had a reputation for being "a quiet, rather boring fellow." His autobiography is far from being a boring book. It is not just a well-told saga of civil rights over half a century. It is an excellent history of a central aspect of America during the middle of the 20th century. And Roy Wilkins, for all his quiet, reasonable, practical, wily ways, is a true American hero.
The story, as Wilkins tells it (with the help of Newsweek editor Tom Mathews), starts in the 1850s, when two slaves were born in northern Mississippi -- Roy's grandparents. The family tree before that can only be traced through bills of sale giving sex, age and weight, without names or birth certificates. For this reviewer, whose great-grandfather was a slaveholder in northern Mississippi in the 1850s, there is a special poignancy in the crossing of life lines. Before Mississippi, our family, too, in the 18th century, came from South Carolina, although not, like the Wilkins ancestors, in chains.
My association with Roy began in the mid-1950s and continued until his death in 1981; those were eventful years for civil rights, but this book shows how much went before them. Two-thirds of this autobiography deals with the life of American Negroes and the pioneer work of the NAACP before the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955.
The civil rights leaders of the '60s, as Wilkins points out, were standing on the shoulders of those who had been fighting long before them. He shows how the achievements of the 1960s can be traced back to the legal fights of the NAACP in the previous decades. Even the Montgomery bus boycott, he cannot resist noting, was occasioned by the refusal of Rosa Parks, secretary of the NAACP local branch, to give up her seat, and was initially organized by an old NAACP Alabama leader, E.D. Nixon, who recruited the young Martin Luther King.
Wilkins remained throughout an unreconstructed integrationist. During his first bout with cancer, in 1946, just before he was wheeled into the operating room to have his colon removed, he sent word that Branch Rickey ought to carry integration of major league baseball beyond Jackie Robinson and pick Roy Campanella. Wilkins wants history to record that as he prepared to meet his maker, "what I thought about was the Brooklyn Dodgers."
His worst trial came during the late '60s when the attention of the media turned to the call for "Black Power" by Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown. Adam Clayton Powell started ridiculing "Roy Weak-knees" and "Martin Loser King." When King was killed, a score of inner cities rioted and burned.
Believing that "for American Negroes revolutionary fantasies were suicidal," and "disgusted" by a black separatism that offered only "a chance to shrivel up and die," Wilkins stood his ground. "Up with black and down with white," he said, was "a reverse Mississippi." The call for separateness, in communities or on college campuses, he attacked as "a sign of weakness, not strength . . . a shameful, self-inflicted form of reverse Jim Crow." He didn't want "black children to become mesmerized by dashikis while the white kids were thinking about space suits."
In 1968, that season of special discontent, as he sailed home from Europe, Wilkins went up on deck early to see the Statue of Liberty. Confessing that he suffered from a "mild case of Norman Rockwell Americanism," he reported how moved and reassured he was "to see that torch aloft over the harbor."
Roy Wilkins clung too long to power in the NAACP -- beyond his 75th year -- but by the end of his journey he had earned the right to remind us what this Republic has promised. Fortunately he exercised that right in this extraordinary account of what it can mean to be an American.