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Civil Rights Icon, Historian Roger Wilkins Dead at 85

Roger Wilkins said he struggled with being the “token Black” at predominately white institutions. Photo by ASSOCIATED PRESS / CHARLES TASNADI

Roger Wilkins, the journalist, historian and activist who championed civil rights for African-Americans under both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, died on Sunday, March 26, family members confirmed. He was 85 years old.

Wilkins, who most recently served as a history professor at George Mason University, passed away at an assisted-living home in Kensington, Md., according to his wife, Patricia King, and daughter Elizabeth Wilkins. His cause of death was complications of dementia.

The passion for justice and equal rights seemingly ran in the family, as Wilkins’ uncle, Roy Wilkins, led the NAACP from 1955 until 1977. He was also mentored by Thurgood Marshall, the celebrated civil rights attorney who became the first African-American associate justice to serve on the Supreme Court.

During his lifetime, Wilkins also served as an assistant U.S. attorney general, supervised domestic programs for the Ford Foundation and even penned op-eds for both The New York Times and The Washington Post. In fact, it was his coverage of the Watergate scandal that helped The Washington Post win a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1973.

Despite his work fighting for the civil rights of Black Americans like himself, Wilkins said he didn’t experience much discrimination coming up. In his 1982 autobiography, “A Man’s Life,” the civil rights icon described his frustration being the “token Black” in tight-knit social clubs and institutions that were majority-white. For a long time, Wilkins said he struggled with his Blackness and decried his need to live up to the expectations of white people.

“Instead of standing with my nose pressed to the window, I often found myself inside rooms with people whose names were Malier, Vidal, Javits, Kennedy or Bernstein,” he wrote. While at work, Wilkins said he was surrounded by middle-aged white men, adding that “my night world was virtually lily-white.”

“It was as if, by entering that world at night, I was betraying everything I told myself I stood for during the day,” Wilkins continued.

In the mid-1960s, Wilkins supported efforts to improve conditions in cities rocked by riots and hopped aboard campaigns for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, according to The New York Times. He left the world of politics following Johnson’s departure from office in 1969 to join the Ford Foundation. After three short years of overseeing funding for job training, education and other services, Wilkins left the nonprofit foundation for journalism and began writing pieces for The Times and The Post.

While at the Times, the seasoned writer and a number of other nonwhite journalists sued the newspaper in 1977, accusing it of race-based discrimination in hiring and promotions. That case was settled with cash and a promise of improvements.

Fast forward 32 years and Wilkins found himself writing an essay for AARP Magazine on the election of the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama. He described his feelings about Obama’s historic win, saying, initially, he didn’t think the senator had a chance.

“This man’s been in the Senate for 15 minutes, and white people just aren’t going to vote for a new Black guy,” Wilkins wrote. “I thought back to the scores of highly intelligent Black men and women I’d known over my lifetime who never even passed “Go” because whites did not believe they could do serious work.”

His daughter, Elizabeth, ended up working on Obama’s campaign, which he described as “her generation’s Selma.” When Obama started winning primaries, Wilkins said he finally “caught that fire.”

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