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Roger Wilkins (1932–2017)

by Kirk Fox

Roger Wilkins, a civil rights activist, historian, and journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize, died Sunday, March 26, 2017, according to multiple news sources. He was 85.

Wilkins’ wife, Patricia King, says he died at an assisted-living facility in Kensington, Maryland. King said the cause of death was complications of dementia.

Wilkins received his law degree from the University of Michigan in 1956. While at Michigan, he interned for the NAACP.


Wilkins worked as a welfare lawyer in Ohio before becoming an assistant attorney general in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration at age 33. He was one of the highest-ranking African-Americans to serve in the executive branch up to that time.

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Johnson appointed Wilkins to lead the Community Relations Service, an agency established under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and eventually overseen by the Justice Department.

In a volatile time in the civil rights movement, Wilkins became one of the administration’s point people on rioting that took place in urban areas across the country. Wilkins said he often felt like an outsider as an African American at that time in the Washington, D.C., political world.

Wilkins left government work in 1969 and went to work for the Ford Foundation. He then joined the editorial board of The Washington Post and won a Pulitzer Prize for his work in helping to expose the Watergate scandal with his editorial columns. Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, and cartoonist Herbert Block, aka Herblock,  also won the award for exposing Watergate, which led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

Wilkins later became a professor of history at George Mason University and retired in 2007.

“I’ve always thought that if I had 15 lucid moments before I die, I’ll want to look back and see that I tried to act with honor, 15 minutes by 15 minutes throughout my life,” Wilkins wrote in his autobiography, “A Man’s Life.”

Wilkins was the nephew of former NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins. He is survived by his wife and their daughter along with two children from a previous marriage.

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