"Mr. Wilkins," asked a young reporter, "is the civil rights movement dead?"
For a moment all grew silent at what Roy Wilkins had called his last press conference Sunday. The muscles is Wilkins' long, oval face tensed and his voice, faltering a minute before, grew crisp.
"I don't think that question has any validity," said the outgoing head of the NAACP, the elder eminence, 46 years on the job, sat down and trained his eyes on the row of feet before him.
When the NAACP board demanded last summer that Wilkins resign at the beginning of 1977, he had responded bitterly. It would be where and when he wanted. So at the NAACP 68th convention this week in St. Louis (Wilkins' birthplace 75 years ago) the pageantry of the torch passing to former FCC commissioner Benjamin Hooks was acted out - mostly Wilkins' way.
The change uof leadership marks the end of an epoch, for Wilkins has been one of the most visible, and most enduring, black spokesmen for the past quarter-century. He has been condemned, first as a militant, later as a conservative. Still, he has survived: Jim Crow and Black Power and too many funeral. He has survived - methodical. low-key, like his organization, hewing to the philosophy of quiet persuasion. It has been no easy career - but it has had its moments.
He came home late that night. After 23 years his wife Aminda, still remembers that. But she didn't fuss because the day was May 17, 1954, the day the Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional.
Wilkins had been sitting in the NAACP's national headquarters in New York. Thurgood Marshall, then one of the NAACP attorneys whose lawsuits led to the decision and who had argued Brown vs. the Board of Education, came bounding through the halls, jumping, whooping.
He kissed Wilkins and both men walked through the office shaking hands, but Wilkins didn't shout. "Our children will have equality of education," he told a staff member. "They will have a chance in the race of life without being penalized before they are born."
Now, Wilkins says without hesitation, "I think my accomplishments are wrapped up in Brown. It summed up the long fight against inequality. "His long, soft hands run over the thin tracks of white hair in the middle of his head. He seems lost for a minute, perhaps thinking that the day seemed as far away as his once-wavy brown hair. "I thought Brown meant a revolution in the conduct of race relations." Mississippi-Bound
He put on a pair of faded overalls, scuffed up his shoes and practiced a southern drawl. It was December, 1932. Wilkins was going south to Mississippi, the state that had given life to his parents but that he had never seen and how he was going disguised as a migrant worker to investigate conditions on a federally-funded levee project.
He slept in the cabin, and instead of the 10-cents an hour salary, got credit for molasses and chewing tobacco at the commissary. His companion, George Schuyler, was run out of the state when his identity as a newspaper reporter was uncovered. But Wilkins survived. "Hey boy," Mistuh Somebody asked Wilkins one morning, "why are your hands uncalloused, where did you get that northern accent?" Wilkins didn't look up but muttered, "I've been working up north as an elevator operator, Mistuh." When Wilkins returned to Kansas City, Mo., where he worked for a black weekly, The Call, he wrote that slavery was still in existence under the United States flag. His writings touched off a Senate investigation. 'No Colored Served'
The young Roy Wilkins observed and absorbed racism, rather than experiencing the sting directly. When Roy was 4, his mother died and his father, the Rev. William D. Wilkins, sent him and two younger children to live with an uncle in St. Paul, Minn. Wilkins grew up playing softball with the neighborhood white children and recalls, "The schools in St. Paul were free of prejudice. The restaurants more or less free, the beaches free." However the childhood protection quickly faded and Wilkins could only get a job as a dining-car waiter, red-cap and cleanup man in a stockyard while a student at the University of Minnesota.
On a trip to the West Coast in the late 1930s, several years after he joined the NAACP full-time as the assistant secretary, Wilkins stopped at a restaurant outside Salt Lake City. "Sorry folks, don't serve colored here," the owner told them. They drove until they saw a Chinese restaurant. Again, no colored served. "I remember screaming I hope Japan wrecks your country," recalls Mrs. Wilkins, the social worker who had married Wilkins in 1929, but her husband kept his rage inside.
"It was the first time I remember being totally as mad as hell," says Wilkins. "About the same time I went to a restaurant in Greenwich Village with two friends and we were refused. But we all sued and received a $200 judgement each."
And today? "There are no encounters like that any more," he says softly, but then quickly adds, "That doesn't mean it hasn't been there. I don't feel it as keenly as before."
Glimpses of Wilkins at the convention: slipping into the coffee shop of the Stouffer's Riverfront Towers for a mid-afternoon dish of ice cream: reading his address to the youth delegates, urging "We need all the protests we can muster . . . we need you to sing," and moments later cracking up as the teen-age girls over squealed when it was announced that Billy Dee Williams will be at the convention later in the week; waving his right index finger when annoyed; sitting at the table in this suite preparing a speech in small script on a yellow pad. 'Wail On, Mr. Wilkins'
While the Supreme Court decision of 1954 pushed equality forwards, it didn't erase racism. Soon the pictures of school children being shouted at and spat upon in Little Rock, Nashville and Charlotte began to haunt Wilkins.
One night, Chet Huntley, the television newsman, proposed that the NAACP withdraw from the school desegregation battle in the South. Because of the outcry the statement generated Wilkins asked for equal time and received it. "We cannot do it, and we shall not do it," said Wilkins. "As for violence we have been the victim not the perpetrators." For those televised moments, Wilkins became tha stuff of local legends. The story is told that in a Harlem bar a man watching the television shouted, "Wail on Mr. Wilkins." A Great Day
All the captains and generals of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were sitting around a table in a hot and uncomfortable room. Aug. 28, 1963, was only days away. Everyone was arguing about the sound system. Martin Luther King Jr. wanted speakers that would carry the sounds from the Washington Monument to the Capitol building. "How much will it cost?" asked Wilkins. "It doesn't matter, someone else said. "Yes it does. Let's get the best but let's find out how much it costs first," said Wilkins. They, did it his way.
The day arrived and a sea of black and white faces from all over the country looked up to Wilkins from the sides of the Reflecting Pool. "I want to thank all of you for coming here today because you saved me from being a liar," Wilkins said to the crowd estimated at 250,000. "I told them you would be here. They didn't believe me because you always make up your minds at the last minute. And you had me scared.But isn't it a great day?"
"I saw it as another milestone, the outpouring of citizens petitioning their government for their rights," says Wilkins now. But didn't King steal the day and didn't you feel some jealousy? Wilkins is asked "there was no jealousy. He had been assigned to the cleanup spot. He was to nail down all the others and summarize all of our intensions." Fire Bombing
The police took a photograph of everyone going into the voter registration rally at the Centennial Baptist Church in Clarksdale, Mis., that day in 1965. Suddenly the lights went out. Then a fire bomb was tossed through the window. People panicked and began to run out the door. Wilkins took the mike and said firmly, "we are establishing our rights."
"Yes, Roy was afraid," remembers Aaron Henry, president of the Mississippi state NAACP. "But he didn't show it, and we all felt more secure with the fact that Roy was the point man. We didn't encounter any trouble because he was calm and he was there. Those white folks understood who he was. The truth of the matter is we have worn out Roy Wilkins. '60s Militancy
"Roy Wilkins is Roy Weak Knees," said Adam Clayton Powell. Wilkins called the late '60's black power movement "reverse Mississippi, a reverse Hitler, a reverse Ku Klux Klan."
After a revoluntionary black power group's plot to assassinate Wilkins was revealed in 1967, he still refused either a bodyguard or to unlist his telephone number. Privately, he expressed great contempt for the extreme black power groups of the '60s, which he called the shouters. He even laughed at some of the "gestures" such as the black power handshake, which he called a "ritual." But one time, when Wilkins went South for the funeral of a field worker he was met at the airport by the Deacons For Defense and Justice, a motorcycle-riding group which espoused violence. "I'll tell you, Roy didn't mind seeing them greet him. They didn't talk but he knew they were protecting him," says a friend.
Was the accusation of being an Uncle Tom painful? "It hurt. The remarks were untrue, but it hurts when someone calls you an Uncle Tom, it's pretty tough to take," Wilkins says now. His thoughts on the black power movement have mellowed. "The militancy of the '60s had its good points. They took pride in their color but they confused the end result with the method. I just didn't see it that way. I was patient but never complacent because I have never seen patience as sitting still." 'Not Enough'
Wilkins and the Presidents. As an adviser to all the Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt, Wilkins has enjoyed a mutual wooing and bickering.
When Dwight Eisenhower called for patience on school integration Wilkins said "We respectfully differ with the President of the United States. We have been patient and moderate and all we get for it is a kick in the teeth." After another Eisenhower statement Wilkins once replied, "Blah, blah, blah."
At a White House reception for 1,000 blacks, John Kennedy took Wilkins aside and said, "What a long way we've come in race relations." Wilkins replied, "Not enough." Lyndon Johnson called Wilkins often, paging him at the airport, calling him in the middle of the night. It was a productive relationship, Wilkins recalls, but on the day the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed Wilkins got his pen and left the reception early because he was miffed at the arrangement.
Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford called Wilkins too. In 1970 when an NAACP official attacked the Nixon administration, Wilkins was under tremendous pressure to correct the official. "The NAACP has never sought to be popular. We are ready for any battle," was Wilkins' reply.
"Oh, things go up and down. The Supreme Court goes one way, legislation goes another, the White House another. We are experiencing another cycle," says Wilkins when asked if he shares the pessimism many blacks feel, sensing civil rights gains slipping away. "I will say the Carter administration is trying hard to come up to the expectations of Negroes. I can't say it has completely justified them yet." Sense of History
Wilkins has been many things, a writer, a lecturer, a presidential adviser, a delegate to international conferences and a jail bird. He's been arrested twice. But probably the thread that ties all those parts together is his sense of history.
In 1967, the Kerner commission was meeting in the treaty room of the old Executive Office Building. "The cause of the riots was frustration. I think we should include a historical perspective that shows that racism over and over again destroys the system," Wilkins, a commission member, said. Someone around the table said, "show me." Then Wilkins carefully outlined the links between the past and the present, detailing how blacks were sent overseas in World War I but returned home to segregated towns and menial jobs.
When his staff would get lathered up over a crisis, attacking it like it was the first instance of racism in the world, Wilkins would say, "Don't get burned out, you have to be around for the next fight." Bad Times
The low points:
Medgar Evers. The killing of Medgar Evers in 1963 was the nadir of Wilkins' career. "I can't remember feeling more hopeless."
The passage of a 1957 civil rights bill. "It was the first civil rights bill in 82 years but it didn't mean anything. The legislators acted like it was the greatest thing that ever came down the pike," Did he tell the congressmen that it was a dried-up olive branch? "No, we were glad to get anything. Clarence (Mitchell) and I were castigated for accepting it but we felt that it wouldn't disturb the consituents of those key congressmen and we should push for something much stronger the next time."
He doesn't mention last year's convention when the factions that have been trying to retire him triumphed.This week he's trying to forget that and just have a good time with the 8,000 delegates that have made his last official convention the biggest ever.
But last year was angry and told the convention, "I suppose I should laugh when one man says I am dishonest and a hundred honor me for my integrity. I suppose I should laugh at the stories about my falling out of a chair, or bed, or maybe the Empire State Building - but how does one laugh when his heart is breaking?" I just Got Mad' "Roy is an introvert, he's very modest, almost shy except in the pursuit of this one thing, then he's inspired, aggressive," says his wife, who is known as Minnie. "he doesn't see the NAACP work as his personal accomplishment, he sees it as a general gift. I'm here to remind him what he's done."
In his office at the NAACP headquarters in New York, wilkins hangs his photographs and watercolors instead of a dozen of honorary degrees and citations. For years one of his pleasures has been driving a white Triumph and he could recite every railroad schedule in the country, where the water tanks were, where the gauges were.
What does he read? "Oh, I don't know," he says hesitantly. "Who-dun-its, modern detective stories."
"Tell the truth, you fall asleep with one almost every night," interjects his wife. He looks totally embarrassed, but then smiles. "You know where I would like to go on vacation? New Zealand." Why? "I don't know,"
What's next for him? Work on an autobriography and consulting with the NAACP.
Is there anything you would have done differently with your life? "Nothing," he says quietly. "Make some money," says his wife. And Wilkins shakes his head negatively, smiling with the glow of a soft amber light under a raw silk cocoa shade. "Nothing," he repeats. "I never place myself above others, I didn't feel any particular pride being a leader. I just got mad, got angry and resented the overall prejudices facing blacks. I just acted like I thought I should."