STANDING FAST: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins by Roy with Tom Mathews Wilkins
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STANDING FAST: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins

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For its first third, the late Roy Wilkins' autobiography is a soul-stirrer in the classic American upward-bound tradition; the balance is a smooth, occasionally argumentative account of Wilkins' epochal work, from 1931, with the NAACP. He begins by invoking his paternal grandfather, born in slavery and ""the family's first recorded doubter""; his rebellious father, who struck a white tormentor; his young parents' flight to St. Louis--where (""a miracle"") the railroad station had no ""colored washroom."" But the only work his father could find, St. Louis or not, was in a brick kiln--and his spirits ""soured."" Then, when Wilkins was six, his mother died; and, responding to her last appeal (""I do not want my children raised in Mississippi""), his childless Aunt Elizabeth took the three Wilkins children back to St. Paul--and to Uncle Sam Williams, a courtly ""railroad man"": comfort, provider, pillar of the community. In first grade, ""all the children were white"" (""the first time I registered the difference""); on Christmas, ""the largest 'chicken' I had ever seen"" came to the table; in the neighborhood, everyone was aspiring. ""The South and its way with race were safely behind me."" He would soon learn otherwise; but he carried that security into adulthood, along with the conviction that, with goodwill, integration worked. The racial awakening was a Minnesota triple lynching: ""For the first time. . . I found myself thinking of black people as a very vulnerable us--and white people as an unpredictable, violent them."" Through a friend of Uncle Sam's who was a friend of W. E. B. Du Bols, Wilkins had also grown up with the nascent NAACP. As news editor, after college, of the Kansas City Call--eight years of the Black Front Page in the ""hard heart of America""--he fought the good fights (against police neglect-or-terrorism, for decent schools and de-ghettoization) and lived the color-line between exuberant black and icy white K.C. These are the book's most spirited and sharp-etched pages--a peephole also into K.C. black Society (where Wilkins met the St. Louis belle who became his wife). With his move to New York in 1931 as Walter White's assistant, the tenor changes: little is personal thereafter save social gatherings. And though Wilkins speaks of the White-Du Bois antipathy, of intra-office strains, and later of the young radicals-old moderates split, the focus is mainly on NAACP legal and legislative battles (before Brown, before the 1964 Civil Rights Act), and on his contacts with presidents from FDR (temporizing) to Truman (blunt) to Eisenhower (unconcerned) to Kennedy (wary) to LBJ: ""I'm always calling you,"" he said to Wilkins. ""Why don't you call me more often?"" On two specific matters, Wilkins challenges the record: in Montgomery, the catalyst was not Martin Luther King, but E. D. Nixon, of the NAACP and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (as brought out also in Milton Viorst's Fire in the Streets); the first lunch-counter sit-in was not in Greensboro (whence SNCC), but two years earlier in Oklahoma City, by young NAACPers (a rather petty ""we first"" claim). But it's not surprising to find Wilkins refighting the legal action vs. direct action battles of the '60s--not a little bolstered by the eclipse of Stokely Carmichael. To him, Black Power was suicidal, separatism an affront to his integrationist credo, and his very lifework at stake. Given particularly the lack of a substantive history of the NAACP, there is much here of factual and ideological moment. There is also a sense of hurt: that whites were not better and blacks not better-yet. The book could hardly be more different from the newly-appearing memoirs of his nephew Roger Wilkins (p. 600).

Pub Date: July 30th, 1982
ISBN: 0306805669
Publisher: Viking