GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Roger Wilkins, a former Grand Rapids resident and civil rights activist, died Sunday in Kensington, Md. He was 85.
Wilkins’ daughter Elizabeth confirmed his death, with the cause being complications from dementia, The New York Times reported.
Wilkins was born in Kansas City in 1932. He moved to Grand Rapids in 1943 to live with his mother. He attended Creston High School.
He received his bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Michigan in 1953 and 1956, respectively.
Wilkins moved to Ohio, where he was a welfare lawyer, before becoming an Assistant Attorney General in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. At that time, he was one of the highest-ranking black people to ever serve in the executive branch.
The New York Times reported Wilkins left government and wrote editorials on the Watergate scandal of 1972 for The Washington Post, which contributed to the paper’s Pulitzer Prize.
He left The Post and joined The New York Times editorial board in 1974.
“He waged war against racism from above the barricades — with political influence, jawboning, court injunctions, philanthropic grants, legislative proposals, and commentaries on radio and television and in newspapers, magazines and books,” The New York Times wrote in his obituary.
For almost 20 years, Wilkins was a professor in history and American culture at George Mason University.
While Wilkins left Grand Rapids as a young man, his mother, Helen Claytor, continued to live in the city and he would visit often.
Claytor was a civil rights activist who moved to Grand Rapids after marrying Dr. Robert Claytor, became the first black woman president of the national YWCA. She died in 2005.
Wilkins was married to Eve Tyler and Mary Myers, both marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife Patricia A. King and their daughter Elizabeth, in addition to two other children from a prior marriage.