Bedingfield Essay: Roy Wilkins, Journalism History, and Law-and-Order Rhetoric

Sid Bedingfield, University of Minnesota

Roy Wilkins is best known as an activist who led the NAACP during the Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath. But my recent article, “The Journalism of Roy Wilkins and the Rise of Law-and-Order Rhetoric” (Journalism History, September 2019), reveals a surprising fact about Wilkins’s long career. In 1964, Wilkins became the first African American newspaper columnist to be syndicated widely in the white, mainstream press in the United States.

I had always assumed Carl Rowan had achieved that distinction in the summer of 1965 when he left the Johnson Administration and began writing three columns a week for the Chicago Daily News syndicate. A year earlier, however, Wilkins signed a contract with the Register and Tribune Service, owned by the Cowles Media Company, and by January 1965 his column appeared weekly in more than 100 newspapers, including dailies in every major metropolitan area in the North. I discovered Wilkins’s syndication contract – and all of his columns – in his personal papers at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Wilkins #1Wilkins held the NAACP’s top job from 1955 through his retirement in 1977. But journalism had always been a part of his professional life. In the 1920s Wilkins worked at a small African American newspaper in Minnesota and at the more prominent Kansas City Call. He joined the NAACP in New York in 1931, and after W.E.B. Du Bois’s acrimonious departure three years later, Wilkins took over the organization’s struggling monthly magazine, The Crisis. Wilkins continued to publish extensively in The Crisis and in the commercial black press throughout his career with the NAACP.

Photo: NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins interviewed by U.S. News and World Report in 1963. One year later, the Register and Tribune Service began syndicating Wilkins’s weekly newspaper column to more than 100 newspapers. (Library of Congress/U.S. News & World Report Magazine Collection)

Suggested Activities

1. Compare the opinion journalism of Roy Wilkins and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1962, both Wilkins and King, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, began writing regular columns for New York’s largest African American newspaper, the Amsterdam News. The competing views expressed in their journalism often reflected the strategic debates roiling the Civil Rights Movement during that time. In 1962, King’s SCLC had joined with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – SNCC – to launch a direct-action campaign challenging segregation laws in Albany, Georgia. The more cautious Wilkins and the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund feared that acts of civil disobedience would undermine growing white political support for civil rights legislation. The Amsterdam News is available through ProQuest Historical Newspapers, and it is relatively easy to access the columns Wilkins and King published between 1962 and the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Students will note how both leaders stepped lightly around their differences. Neither wanted to launch a public war of words, but they do trade subtle barbs in their journalism. Wilkins expresses his frustration with the “action boys” who embrace confrontation and ridicule reform efforts that focus on the courts and the Congress. King defends his non-violent protest strategy aggressively, and students who read his columns closely will detect King’s growing irritation with Wilkins and the NAACP.

Through this exercise, students see how civil rights activists used opinion journalism in the black press to debate strategy and shape public opinion in the African American community. The assignment emphasizes an important point that can get lost in coverage of the civil rights years. Opinion in the African American community was never monolithic; debates over goals, strategy, and tactics were robust and ongoing, and they often played out in the black press.   

2. Contextualize Wilkins’s decision to use his new platform in the mainstream white press to denounce African American crime. What is the “politics of respectability,” and why did Wilkins feel compelled to employ it to combat the rise of law-and-order rhetoric in the 1960s? Compare the way Wilkins addressed crime with the tone used by King and other civil rights leaders of the era.

The perception of black criminality that bedeviled Roy Wilkins during the 1960s has deep historical roots. Scholars have documented the role of white media in depicting African Americans as violent, criminal, and socially irredeemable. Carol Stabile has shown how white editors of the nineteenth century used sentimental framing to present stories of “black brutality” and “white innocence” as a form of titillating entertainment. Have students read some of the accounts that Stabile cites in her book, White Victims, Black Villains.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad highlights the role of Progressive Era reformers in propagating new theories of racial criminalization that shifted concern from white immigrant communities to African Americans. These theories depicted the Irish, Italian, and Jewish working classes as “a great army of unfortunates,” while African Americans were dismissed as “self-destructive and pathological.” Muhammad contends these studies helped create a pernicious double standard in the public perception of criminal acts. A crime committed by a white person came to be seen as a failure of the individual, while a black offense was often generalized to represent the inherently violent nature of the race. Have students read news accounts of some of the studies Muhammed cites in his book, The Condemnation of Blackness.

In her book on black Baptist clubwomen of the early twentieth century, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham describes the “politics of respectability” as a desperate bid by African American elites to influence white society’s “overall accounting of black inferiority.” Practitioners of respectability politics acted and spoke as if they were “ever-cognizant of the gaze of White America,” Higginbotham argues in Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement and the Black Baptist Church.

Have students read some of Wilkins’s columns on black crime from the mid-1960s and compare his attempt to assuage white public opinion with similar efforts made by the churchwomen in Higginbotham’s book. Also have students look at some of King’s columns about crime and urban unrest during the era. How do they compare with Wilkins’s rhetoric?

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