Monday, February 21, 2011

Roger Wilkins interviewed on NPR

As part of the commemoration of Black History Month, NPR's Michel Martin recorded a short interview with renowned lawyer, civil rights advocate, journalist, and historian Roger Wilkins. His legacy includes a long involvement with the NAACP, a Pulitzer Prize-winning role in exposing the Watergate scandal, and years of teaching history at George Mason University.

Here's an excerpt of the conversation, in which Wilkins recalls serving as a lawyer for the federal government in the 1960s:

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you, because you joined the Johnson administration when you were 33. Do I have that right?

Prof. WILKINS: Yeah.

MARTIN: About 33 years old. I just wonder, did you feel ambivalence about going into government at that age?

Prof. WILKINS: I went into government working on issues of poverty, and it was called then the Third World, I guess. And particularly I was - I cared about Africa. I came when Kennedy was president. There weren't that many black people in the government at the time. And you could do that work and say, I've got to do something to help. And so I helped and I pushed very, very hard. And I said - I took risks that frightened me, criticizing President Kennedy and Attorney General Kennedy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILKINS: An enraged Attorney General Kennedy said that, he, that green kid - I wasn't green; I was brown - that green kid, he'll never work under this Department of Justice as long as I'm attorney general, and that came true. They maybe mad at you but they discussed what you said.

Ultimately, it is what kind of human being am I? What kind of life am I going to create for myself? Can I stand around and with my two degrees from the University of Michigan and watch other people do the changes? I couldn't be a bystander.

The audio and full transcript are here.

The HistoryMakers (a non-profit that has archived thousands of African American oral histories) has also conducted a series of interviews with Wilkins. The finding aid is here.

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