Roy Wilkins: Who was he?

School of Rock Road Crew plays at the Wilkins on Saturday
School of Rock Road Crew plays at the Wilkins on Saturday
James Tidwell

Roy Wilkins Auditorium has presented everything from pro sports to poetry slams to rock concerts. When the Minnesota RollerGirls host a roller derby championship on Saturday, approximately 3,000 men, women, and children will fill the St. Paul institution. The School of Rock Road Crew, made up of 16 local students (ages 12 to 18) from the music school franchise will play at halftime on a stage that has held a huge range of artists, including Bob Dylan, the Kinks, Nirvana, Mötley Crüe, and Cyndi Lauper.

The facility first opened in 1932, designed by architect Clarence W. Wigington (the country's first African-American municipal architect) and named the St. Paul Auditorium. The civic center was designed for multi-purpose use, hosting Gophers hockey, the Minneapolis Lakers, several state tournaments, and a multitude of other events. Today the venue (at 175 Kellogg Boulevard West) generally serves artists too big for First Avenue but not enough of a draw for the Xcel or Target Center. Given the building's status as one of the metro's primary mid-size venues, it raises the question: Who was Roy Wilkins?

Wilkins, born in St. Louis, Missouri, made his biggest mark in St. Paul. Growing up in the now-razed Rondo neighborhood, Wilkins graduated from the University of Minnesota, edited the Minnesota Daily and St. Paul Appeal, and moved on to edit the NAACP's official magazine, the Crisis. In 1964, Wilkins became executive director of the NAACP, and from there he held a national position until his retirement, playing a leading role in the civil rights movement and serving as advisor to presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. In this period, he played a prominent part in such social landmarks as Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Politically, Wilkins believed in progress through nonviolent, legislative means. He denounced Communism and more militant groups like the Black Power Movement, sometimes drawing ire from more extreme factions, but generally expounding moderate-liberal values.

Wilkins retired in 1976, and in 1981 he died of heart complications. He left a legacy with the NAACP, the civil rights movement, and the city of St. Paul. In honor of his achievements, the Twin Cities has created many tributes. The St. Paul Capitol mall features a statue (from 1995), the University of Minnesota has the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Human Justice (established in 1992), and in 1984 St. Paul Mayor George Latimer renamed the St. Paul Civic Center Auditorium Roy Wilkins Auditorium. Roughly 1,000 citizens attended the newly christened building for its opening.

Nearly 30 years later, the moderne-style structure continues to thrive.

"It's a fitting tribute," says Chris Taylor, the diversity outreach program manager at the Minnesota Historical Society. "Not because of the entertainment, but due to the visibility of the building and the fact that it was renamed for Wilkins, who should be considered one of the most prominent Minnesotans regardless of race."

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