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© 1997, Khue Bui / The Washington Post

Academy Fellow Roger Wilkins, whose decades long career traversed public service and academia, passed away on March 26, 2017, at the age of 85.

Wilkins began his career in public service during the Kennedy administration as an assistant to the head of USAID. In that administration, he played a role in the development and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  He went on to be the
point-person on urban and racial issues in the Johnson administration and became the Assistant Attorney General at the age of 33, at which point he was one of the highest ranking African Americans in the executive branch.

Upon leaving public service in 1969, Wilkins joined the Ford Foundation, where he oversaw funding for job training and drug rehabilitation programs and education grants. Following the Ford Foundation, he joined the Washington Post in 1972, where, in 1973, he earned a Pulitzer Prize.  In 1974 he left the Post to write for the New York Times, where he later became one of its first black editorial board members.  Wilkins often wrote about the burdens of being a black man in a position of power and influence.  In his 1982 biography, he wrote that while experiencing little personal interaction with racial injustice growing up, he “was a man living in a never-never land somewhere far beyond the constraints my grandparents had known but far short of true freedom. … I knew no black people – young or old, rich or poor – who didn’t feel injured by the experience of being black in America.”

Wilkins was born on March 25, 1932, in Kansas City, MO, to Earl and Helen Jackson Wilkins.  His father was a journalist and his mother was the first black national president of the YWCA.  After his father’s death in 1941, the family moved to Michigan, where Wilkins later went on to attend the University of Michigan for both his undergraduate education and law degree.

Wilkins is survived by his wife of 36 years, Patricia King, a law professor at Georgetown, as well as three children and two grandchildren.

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