There is a picture downstairs in the family room in our house of a tall, black man holding a little black baby. It was taken about 49 years ago on the day when my Uncle Roy and I were getting acquainted.
My mother, father and I lived in Kansas City then and Uncle Roy had just gone to New York to work for the great black scholar W. E. B. DuBois, at the NAACP magazine, The Crisis. During those years, my father, Uncle Roy's younger brother, was very sick and my uncle would come from New York to visit us as often as he could. He was the tallest and handsomest man I knew and he would hang his pants on the closet door. I thought that was wonderful and so when I got tall enough, to my mother's dismay, I, too, would hang my pants on the closet door.
Roy Wilkins wasn't famous in those days, and when he came to Kansas City for my father's funeral 40 years ago, he was just my kind uncle from New York. He took care of both Grandpa and me at the funeral and when they read thanatopsis for Daddy, he touched my hand while Grandpa was crying. I didn't cry because Uncle Roy had told me that little men weren't supposed to do that.
As the years passed and my uncle became more prominent, I saw him through a double lens. He was the closest thing I had to my father, so I would watch him closely for hints of what my father might have been. And then when I grew up and went to the Justice Department, working on the northern urban riots, though he still hung his pants on the closet door, he was also my senior colleague in the civil rights movement. He didn't want the world to think that he had created me and I didn't want the world to think I had a special pipeline to him. In fact, he hadn't and I didn't, but we kept our distance so the appearance would match the reality.
But there would be Christmas dinners when Uncle Roy would carve the turkey and slice the ham and Aunt Minnie would tell my children and me wonderful stories about my father and grandfather. Uncle Roy and I would talk baseball. He was a Dodger fan long before Jackie Robinson came into the league and he would use those long, graceful hands of his to show me how Pee Wee Reese used to lay down a bunt.
Those long, graceful hands almost got him killed once. Thurgood Marshall told me that in the '30s, when he and Uncle Roy disguised themselves as sharecroppers and went to Mississippi to investigate conditions there, a white storekeeper in a little town noticed those hands and knew they were not a field man's hands.
"Come on, Roy, let's get the hell out of here," Justice Marshall recalls saying.
So the two of them escaped, but Thurgood says they had been there long enough to get what they were after anyway.
Before he went to the NAACP, Uncle Roy edited a black weekly See WILKINS, C8, Col. 1WILKINS, From C1paper in Kansas City. He always loved the English language and through his years at the NAACP he kept an old battered Underwood next to his desk on which he would compose elegant statements and send or take them out to do the battle for justice to which his life was committed. He did other things in the movement, of course. He marched in demonstrations, he orchestrated the March on Washington in 1963, he met in rooms from battered shacks in Alabama to the Oval Office on Pennsylvania Avenue to help shape strategies to secure more justice for Americans.
But it was the word he loved and used with joy and power in his life's fight.
In the '60s, people in the Kennedy administration would tell me that he was the civil rights professional on whom they relied. After that, he and Lyndon Johnson grew to love each other. They were men of the same generation, and both of moderate origins. Those associations enabled Uncle Roy to translate the turbulence in the streets into visions of the future that were comprehensible to Washington policy-makers. In that way, Uncle Roy and Martin Luther King were closer partners than either of them ever acknowledged. They had different ways of pursuing freedom, you see, because Martin usually fought with the masses behind him on the streets, and Uncle usually fought behind closed doors. They didn't always understand each other's way.
Uncle's hand was large in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. And so was Martin's. They were opposite sides of an honorable coin. And they did support each other. I ran into Uncle Roy one day in the mid-'60s at the shuttle terminal at La Guardia Airport. "Where you going?" I asked. "Down to see J. Edgar Hoover," he replied, "to try to get him off of Martin's back." A couple of weeks later I saw Martin at a meeting where young militants were calling my uncle an "Uncle Tom" because of his fierce belief in integration.
"Tell Roy I'm with him," Martin said.
Uncle Roy won a lot of honors, the greatest of which was the love and the trust of the people in the NAACP who could afford only to pay $2 for their memberships. Some of my most vivid memories of him were in airports with redcaps shaking his hand and thanking him earnestly for the work he was doing. He loved that because he had once been a redcap himself.
He always had time for the longest local NAACP chapter meetings and then for the last person in the room who wanted to talk to him after that. When I was a kid in Harlem, he would sometimes take me to nearby meetings and when I would come home hours later, I would tell my mother: "Uncle Roy stayed to talk to the last old lady again."
And he was stubborn. Once when he was down at the LBJ Ranch, near the end of the president's life, Uncle Roy decided that he was tired and started up to bed. President Johnson told him it wasn't time to go to bed because the late news hadn't come on yet.
"Mr. President," Uncle Roy replied, "nobody has told me what time to go to bed since my mother died, and that was a long time ago." And then he went to bed with the same dogged stubbornness which he had brought to the civil rights struggle.
We were very different, Uncle and I, but we loved each other very much. Now he has gone to his final rest and the family is gathering. So it is time for me to get my pants down from the closet door and go.