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Roger Wilkins, historian, activist, dies at 85

3/31/2017, 12:39 a.m.
Roger Wilkins, a historian, journalist and activist who held a key civil rights post in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration ...

Free Press wire report

WASHINGTON

Roger Wilkins, a historian, journalist and activist who held a key civil rights post in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration and helped The Washington Post win the coveted Pulitzer Prize for its Watergate coverage, died Sunday, March 26, 2017.

He was 85 and died of complications from dementia at an assisted living facility in Kensington, Md., said his wife, Patricia King, and daughter, Elizabeth Wilkins.

Most recently, Mr. Wilkins worked as a history professor at George Mason University in Northern Virginia.

His uncle, Roy Wilkins, was the longtime executive director of the national NAACP. A lifetime later, his daughter, Elizabeth, worked on the presidential campaign of then-Sen. Barack Obama.

Mr. Wilkins said in the spring of 2008 that the presidential candidacies of a woman and an African-American man “would have been fodder for a fantasy movie” when he graduated from college 55 years earlier.

“Today, whatever our problems are, we have a vastly different and better country than the one we lived in in 1953,” he told University of Southern Maine graduates.

From the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, Mr. Wilkins worked with the Johnson administration, the Ford Foundation, The Washington Post and The New York Times. In his 1982 autobiography, “A Man’s Life,” he described the frustrations of being “the lead black in white institutions for 16 years.”

In 1965, President Johnson tapped Mr. Wilkins to head the federal Community Relations Service, which was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to mediate racial disputes and foster progress in black communities.

The New York Times said President Johnson told him it would be “the toughest job ever given any Negro in the Federal Government. …You have one mandate — to do what is right.”

As many cities were wracked by rioting in the mid-1960s, Mr. Wilkins advocated efforts to improve conditions.

“We have to change the way people live,” he told the Times in 1967. “All the rest is Band-Aids and lollipops.”

He joined the Ford Foundation when President Johnson left office in early 1969. In 1970, he wrote a Washington Post essay about being nearly the only black at the Gridiron Dinner, the annual Washington frolic of the male power elite. He wrote that its convivial insider jokes about such things as President Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” amounted to “a depressing display of gross insensitivity and both conscious and unconscious racism.”

He wound up leaving the Ford Foundation for journalism. His Washington Post editorials in the early months of the Watergate scandal in 1972 contributed to the newspaper winning the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, a staff award.

Mr. Wilkins left the Post in 1974 to join The New York Times, doing commentary on the final stages of the Watergate scandal from his new post.

Among his other books were “Jefferson’s Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism” in 2001 and “Quiet Riots: Race and Poverty in the United States,” a 1988 look back at the Kerner Commission’s 1968 report of urban unrest that Mr. Wilkins co-edited with former Sen. Fred R. Harris, who had been a commission member.