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Neighbor to Neighbor: Miss. slave’s grandson brings changes in U.S.

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Probably, like every grandparent or parent of every child living today, they hoped for the best that could be possible for that little baby. What pride they could have enjoyed if...

By Barbara Morris

Roy Wilkins, born Aug. 30, 1901, was the grandson of a Mississippi slave.

Probably, like every grandparent or parent of every child living today, they hoped for the best that could be possible for that little baby. What pride they could have enjoyed if they could have imagined the great honors he would have earned in his life.

He believed strongly in education and fairness and, after escaping from the life his grandparents had lived, he and another man posed as indigents to investigate the plight of Negro workers on flood-control projects along the Mississippi River. He wrote an important document, “Mississippi River Slavery in 1932,” which led to a Senate investigation and improved conditions for the workers.

After being raised in St. Paul and receiving a degree from the University of Minnesota, he started a career as a newspaperman. He became secretary of the St. Paul Chapter of the NAACP, and later held a similar post in Kansas City, Kan., where he became managing editor of the Kansas City Call. His wife, Aminda Wilkins, described the column that her husband wrote for the paper as a real guidepost for the Negro community.

Mr. and Mrs. Wilkins came to New York in 1931 when Walter White asked him to serve as the NAACP’s assistant executive director, a position he held until 1955, when he stepped in as the top official of the NAACP after the death of White.

The Wilkinses settled in Harlem, where they stayed about 20 years. Seeking greener, quieter pastures, they came to the Jamaica area. They finally settled in a garden apartment in Parkway Village and, although they were without children of their own, they could enjoy the company of Wilkins’ nephew, his wife and their 2-year-old daughter, who lived across the street from them.

Wilkins believed strongly that it was possible for minority groups in this country to achieve equality by using tools within the system, by legal means, without violence. His lack of a militant attitude prompted opponents to sometimes refer to him as an “Uncle Tom,” but that didn’t bother him at all. He just wanted others to look at what had been accomplished by black people working together and including whites and others supporting the civil rights cause.

Wilkins wanted to improve what he called the “not good” relations between the police and the black community. Since the Black Panthers were identified with guns and violence, which he opposed, he was quoted as saying, “Their declaration of war on the police — undifferentiated — was a tactic we felt was -self- defeating. You can’t declare war on the police of the U.S. without expecting them to use war tactics in return.”

In June 1967, in fact, the police and the Queens district attorney, after investigating a group or 12 men and four women, arrested them as members of the Revolutionary Action Movement, a group that planned to assassinate Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and other non-violent civil rights leaders. A shocking part of the case was that many of those arrested were blade professionals who had felt secure in their planned misdeeds just because they were thought to be above reproach.

Wilkins’ hard work, and that of many others, accomplished a great deal — school desegregation the right of blacks to vote, improvement in housing and work, and many other efforts toward justice.

Honors were bestowed on him. President Lyndon Johnson conferred the nation’s highest civil decoration, the Medal of Freedom, on Roy Wilkins. On May 1, 1968, Roy Wilkins receive the fourth annual Liberty Bell Award from the Queens County Bar Association and was cited for his “ outstanding service performed in keeping with the spirit of our Constitution imposing upon citizens the duty to strengthen and safeguard the blessings of liberty for themselves and succeeding generations.”

He received yet another honor, when the Southern Queens Park Association inducted him into the African American Hall of Fame in Roy Wilkins Park.

The park will also be the site of the latest tribute — at 10 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 15 — when the Jamaica Post Office and Postmaster Gino S. Gentilini are to unveil the Roy Wilkins Commemorative Stamp.

A great tribute to a great American.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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