Roger Wilkins. Provided
By Dr. Niathan Allen
The recent death of Roger Wilkins, former Assistant Attorney General, leaves a significant gap in many lives. Roger took on the responsibility of trying to help eradicate systemic racism. He first created the kind of working environment at the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service (CRS) that consisted of a diverse staff, clearly reflecting internally the overall racial composition of the nation which included race, age and gender.
To foster such a composition in an age-old conservative institution as the Justice Department, sent waves of concern internally and externally. Interestingly, Attorney General Ramsey Clark welcomed the changes.
The latter changes in the department further encouraged the Assistant Attorney General to help “America Become America Again.” Somehow, some way Mr. Wilkins was able to attract young, old and experienced leadership from new, old, traditional and non-traditional institutions and agencies.
As a collective group, they were sensitive, knowledgeable, committed and clearly understood the need for dialogue, consensus, commitment, dedication, integrity and change. A collection of elements needed to help change the racial issues gnawing at the conscience of the nation. His documented supportive efforts for the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped enhance the objectives promulgated by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), in spite of Herbert Hoover’s opposition. Furthermore, he never, knowingly, allowed himself to be intimidated by the then ultra conservative and, at times, racially bent Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Roger also accompanied Attorney General Ramsey Clark on his visit to riot-torn Detroit to assess firsthand the overall racial climate for President Lyndon B. Johnson.
When the so-called “Young Turks” (internal activists) were questioning governmental procedures and practices that limited career mobility for women, African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans, Roger did not distance himself from these concerns. He took it upon himself to bring the discrepancies before the Civil Service Commission which resulted in significant departmental changes structurally and operationally.
More importantly, Roger taught a group of young leaders early on in their careers how to apply discipline to change this country for the better. One of his Field Representatives became the top ranking Hispanic in the Department of Justice (during the Nixon era); another became a top administrator with the CIA and orchestrated a program that began to recruit from the Historical Black Colleges and Universities. Then, another one of his “Young Turks” followed him to the Ford Foundation and later became a top aide to New York’s Mayor Koch where he directed millions to some of the neighborhoods where the traditional settlement houses such as Henry Street Settlement were trying to make a difference. There were others who became professors at major colleges and universities and effectively combined theory with practices.
On one occasion Roger agreed to accept Lena Park’s Community Development Hecht/Shaw Award in Boston, Massachusetts. Prior to the formal affair, Roger participated in a discussion with former Congressman Barney Franks on Black-Jewish relationship. The discussion was frank, honest and charted a clear course for strengthening the ties between these two historic partners.
Roger’s presentation was further highlighted at the Awards Gala before a crowd of 2,000 participants where he accentuated the importance of partnership. The Hecht/Shaw former award recipients included the late Senator Edward Kennedy, the late Anthony Drexel Duke, H. Carl McCall former Comptroller for New York State, the late State Senator William F. Bowen (Cincinnati), the late Rev. Calvin Pressley former director of the New York City Mission Society, the Right Rev. James Parks Morton former Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York and others.
Roger Wilkins, in addition to being a journalist and historian, was by far a great Civil Rights leader. He also authored many of the editorials related to Watergate which helped position The Washington Post to become the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.
Roger’s life centered on helping to eradicate systemic racism and he taught so many of us how to join the chorus for change.
Thank you, Roger Wilkins, for a job well done. You will be missed.