A young Roy Wilkins picked up Twin Cities newspapers on June 16, 1920. By the time he put them down, he felt “sick, scared and angry all at the same time.”
It was still more than third of a century before Wilkins would begin his 22-year reign atop the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — leading the NAACP from 1955 to 1977 during a pivotal and tumultuous period in American history.
But that summer morning in Minnesota is when Wilkins “lost my innocence on race once and for all.”
The newspapers chronicled the story of black circus workers, aged 19 and 20, who had been accused of raping a young white Duluth woman in a field just behind the circus tents.
Rumors swirled through Duluth, where racial tensions already were high after U.S. Steel had brought in southern black field hands to thwart white union strike threats.
A group of more than 5,000 white protesters took to Duluth’s Superior Street, then stormed the jail and lynched three of the suspects — hanging Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie from a lamppost.
“This was Minnesota, not Mississippi,” Wilkins wrote 60 years later in his autobiography, “but every Negro in the show had been suspect in the eyes of the police and guilty in the eyes of the mob.”
Wilkins remembered thinking, for the first time, “of black people as a very vulnerable ‘us’ — and white people as an unpredictable, violent ‘them.’ ”
Wilkins would go from St. Paul’s Mechanic Arts High School to the University of Minnesota, working as a caddie, railroad waiter and in a slaughterhouse to pay his tuition. When “an unpleasant woman with two unruly kids” tipped him a nickel for serving meals all the way from St. Paul to Seattle, Wilkins recalled tossing the coin out the train window.
“It was my first real act of rebellion,” he said. “And I’ve never felt better.”
In 1922, he was still reeling from the lynchings two years earlier — when the Duluth mob showed him for the first time such “awful hatred.” So he entered the U’s prestigious Pillsbury Oratorical Contest. He became one of six finalists with his speech about the lynchings, titled “Democracy or Demonocracy?”
Judges doled out points for podium presence, rhetorical finesse and subject matter. Wilkins had studied public speaking under legendary Prof. Frank Rarig.
“He gave me lessons on how to keep a banquet audience awake while the rubber chicken is going down,” Wilkins said years later.
He was convinced he’d take first prize in the contest — “I thought I had a sure winner and I was disappointed” when he finished third and collected the $25 prize.
“But it came out to one-quarter of the tuition bill,” he said, “so I put it to good use and have been in the speaking business one way or another ever since.”
Wilkins was born in Mississippi and moved to St. Louis when he was toddler. But his mother died when he was 4 and his father sent him to St. Paul, where he was raised by an aunt and uncle in a North End neighborhood “full of Swedes and Germans, French, Irish and Jews.”
Tough Rice Street gangs would often use the n-word, “along with other brickbats,” but growing up in St. Paul showed Wilkins it was possible “for white people and black people to live next door to one another, to get along — even to love one another.”
The first black reporter at the Minnesota Daily, Wilkins went on to serve as an editor at the Appeal — a black community newspaper not far from where he grew up near Rice Street.
By 22, he left Minnesota for good. He took an editor’s job in Kansas City and then joined the NAACP’s national staff in New York in 1931. He stayed with the group for more than 45 years.
Martin Luther King Jr. and other charismatic preachers would easily eclipse Wilkins’ public profile. Wilkins was the calm, reserved leader who favored dispassionate and legal change strategies to fiery speeches.
“His patience with men of the cloth wore thin,” longtime NAACP colleague Gilbert Jonas wrote.
When King opposed the Vietnam War, the chasm between the two leaders widened. Wilkins sent a memo to NAACP chapters instructing them not to use the organization’s name in antiwar protests. King and Wilkins continued to work together, though, and combined forces to try to quell the more militant Black Power activists.
In 1962, when Wilkins celebrated 30 years with the NAACP, King wrote a letter to the man who grew up in Minnesota.
“You have proved to be one of the great leaders of our time,” he wrote. “Through your efficiency as an administrator, your genuine humanitarian concern, and your unswerving devotion to the principles of freedom and human dignity, you have carved yourself an imperishable niche in the annals of contemporary history.”
Curt Brown’s tales on Minnesota history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. He will be discussing his new book on the Marvy family of St. Paul, the nation’s last makers of barber poles, Feb. 17 at Common Good Books in St. Paul at 7 p.m.