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Wilkins: diplomat of civil rights movement

Roy Wilkins, one of the prominent leaders of the black civil rights movement during one of its most turbulent periods, left a legacy of the strong, but nonmilitant leader, with his passing Sept. 8.

Retired executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Mr. Wilkins was the diplomat of the civil rights movement. He survived the rage of black power advocates, the intimidation of the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Councils, and dissension within the NAACP.

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He was the last of a breed -- a domineering leader accepted by blacks and whites alike as an authoritative voice in the civil rights movement.

He was the last of the four major civil rights leaders who together organized the 1963 "March on Washington" that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

The act transformed the civil rights campaign from street protests and black-white confrontations to executive suites and legislative corridors. Civil rights workers became proposal writers, lobbyists, and affirmative action consultants.

In spite of other changes represented in black power shouts and clinched fists, Mr. Wilkins stuck to what his critics called a plodding course in seeking the NAACP goal of "first-class citizenship in an integrated society."

He insisted on a subdued approach to civil rights. First, he utilized the legal approach as the NAACP's basic weapon. Second, he adopted the lobby, maintaining an office in Washington to influence legislation in Congress. Third , though rarely demonstrating in the streets, he spent years with grass-roots organizers, building and visiting local branches in 1,400 communities. Fourth, he demanded that NAACP branches work toward integration whether they were organizing in "Jim Crow" backwoods communities of the South, or in sophisticated middle-class enclaves in the North.

"The Negro has to be a superb diplomat, a great strategist," Mr. Wilkins once said. "He has to parlay what actual power he has with the good will of the white majority. And that doesn't mean the Negro has to indulge in bootlicking. He must seek to identify with the American tradition."

Mr. Wilkins survived attacks on his leadership of the association. In 1968, the "Young Turks" declared him too old at 67 and old-fashioned to lead the association. In 1974, a faction of the national board sought to fire him on the spot at the NAACP convention in New Orleans. He was retired with honor the following year in his home town, St. Louis. The association voted him a lifetime stipend after a career that never paid him more than $30,000 a year.

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Originally a career journalist with a militant black weekly, the Kansas City Call, Mr. Wilkins began his NAACP career in 1931. He succeeded the famed Dr. W. E. B. DuBois as editor of the association's thundering journal, the Crisis, in 1934, and took over as executive director from Walter White in 1955.

Today his voice and pen are silent, but national leaders like President Reagan and grass-roots blacks are paying tribute to a man who devoted his life to improving race relations.

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