Roger Wilkins, a historian, journalist, civil rights activist and Justice Department official who wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning editorials for The Washington Post on the Watergate scandal, died Sunday. The cause was complications from dementia, his daughter Elizabeth told the Post. He was 85.
Wilkins’ career stretched from the Lyndon B. Johnson administration to the editorial boards of the Post, and The New York Times as well as the Ford Foundation, where he did much of his work on race relations. His uncle, Roy Wilkins served as the executive director of the NAACP. In his writings, he captured the sentiment of being an African-American trying to move his people forward against the agitation of racism in the country.
In his 1982 autobiography, “A Man’s Life,” he described the frustrations of being “the lead black in white institutions for 16 years.”
Born in 1932 in Kansas City, Wilkins had worked as a welfare caseworker in Cleveland and as an international lawyer in New York before coming to Washington to work for U.S. Agency for International Development in 1962.
In 1965 Johnson hired Wilkins to lead the federal Community Relations Service, an agency created to advance race relations uplift Black communities. He held the position through much of the tumultuous decade in which many cities saw devastating social unrest.
By 1969 he was working at the Ford Foundation, and there he was in charge of funding for job training, drug rehab and education in poor areas, the Post said. But he remarked that the job was a glass house whose mainly white leaders did not relate to the issues challenging communities of color.
In the early 70s, Wilkins had joined the editorial board of the Post and composed a series of essays for the newspaper that contributed to coverage of the Watergate scandal the won it a Pulitzer Prize. He got an offer to come to the Times and be a part of its editorial board, where he also did work on Watergate.
He left the Times in 1979 and worked as a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, as well as serving as a professor of history and American culture at George Mason University. He also served as publisher of the NAACP’s The Crisis from 1998 to 2010.
Among his other writings were: “Jefferson’s Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism,” 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 Wilkins co-edited with former Sen. Fred R. Harris, who had been a commission member.
Wilkins is survived by his wife, Patricia King a professor of law at Georgetown University; three children, Amy, David and Elizabeth Wilkins; two half sisters and two grandsons, according to the Post.