Roger W. Wilkins, a ranking Justice Department official during the 1960s who later composed Pulitzer Prize-winning editorials about the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post and wrote unsparingly about the conflicts and burdens he experienced as a black man in positions of influence, died Sunday at a nursing home in Kensington, Maryland. He was 85.
The cause was complications from dementia, said his daughter, Elizabeth Wilkins.
In a career that traversed law, journalism and education, Wilkins made matters of race and poverty central to his work as an assistant attorney general in the Johnson administration and later as one of the first black editorial board members at The Post and The New York Times.
By kinship or friendship, he was linked to many black leaders of the civil rights era. Roy Wilkins, who led the NAACP from 1955 to 1977, was an uncle. In law school, Roger Wilkins was an intern for Thurgood Marshall, then director-counsel of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund and later a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
From a young age, he once wrote, he was compelled to spend his life “blasting through doors that white people didn’t want to open.”
Wilkins said he lived at times with a painful duality as an African-American who had risen to positions of leverage in white-controlled halls of power.
He felt an obligation to serve the black community but that he also desired an identity independent from it — “my own personal exemption,” he said. In New York, he could feel at home in Harlem, in the bohemian Greenwich Village and in a tony apartment on Central Park West.
He spent periods of his life at the Ford Foundation, where he awarded grants from its luxurious New York offices, and on the riot-ravaged streets of Detroit, where he was confronted by gun-wielding state troopers unaccustomed to encountering a black federal authority. At checkpoints, he learned to hold up his hands and shout, “Department of Justice, Department of Justice!”
Intense and sensitive, Wilkins described himself as restless, given to heavy drinking and susceptible to bouts of despair and deep depression. He saw himself as a microcosm of high-achieving black America at a time of limited new opportunity amid still-festering historical bigotry.
“I was a man living in a never-never land somewhere far beyond the constraints my grandparents had known but far short of true freedom,” he wrote in his 1982 autobiography, “A Man’s Life.” “I knew no black people — young or old, rich or poor — who didn’t feel injured by the experience of being black in America.”
Roger Wood Wilkins was born on March 25, 1932, in Kansas City, Missouri, where he began his schooling in a one-room, segregated schoolhouse.
His father, Earl, a business manager of the Kansas City Call, a black newspaper, died of tuberculosis at 35. His mother, the former Helen Jackson, was instrumental in the racial desegregation of the national Y.W.C.A. and eventually served as its first African-American president.