A solid biography of the man who headed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for nearly a quarter of a century.
What began as a doctoral dissertation for Ryan, managing editor of the Economist’s annual World In publication, is now a full-blown portrait not just of Roy Wilkins (1901–1981), a man “more comfortable walking the corridors of power than demonstrating on sidewalks,” but also of the NAACP under his leadership. A founder and driving force behind the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a powerful coalition of civil rights, labor and religious groups that coordinated lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C., Wilkins worked behind the scenes to get major civil rights bills through Congress in the 1950s and ’60s. Ryan details the conflict between activist groups and the conservative Wilkins, who was convinced that the integration of blacks into American society was best achieved not through violence and demonstrations but through legislation and the courts. In his view, the militancy of the Black Power movement and the havoc of ghetto riots drove away white support, and when Martin Luther King Jr. advocated merging the civil rights movement with the peace movement, Wilkins argued against it. His problems with other civil rights leaders were mirrored by struggles within the NAACP, where tensions and feuds led to a bruising battle over his retirement and a bitter last year in office for the reluctant-to-go Wilkins. His story is full of conflict with those who differed with him, but Ryan notes that a kind of synergy was operating as well: Favorable legislation and legal rulings were necessary but no guarantee of compliance, while the moral force of protestors created an environment for legal changes. Further, the author points to the survival of the NAACP as the greatest legacy of Wilkins: While once-prominent civil rights groups have shrunk or vanished completely, the mainstream NAACP is still going strong.
Brings deserved attention to the accomplishments of a dedicated, savvy man.