So Minnesota: The history of civil rights leader Roy Wilkins

Joe Mazan
Updated: July 07, 2020 03:28 PM
Created: June 18, 2020 05:13 PM

From roller derby to hockey games to concerts, for decades Roy Wilkins Auditorium has hosted events in downtown St. Paul for years.

However, many don't know the history behind the building's namesake.

Roy Wilkins was born in St. Louis in 1901. Wilkins grew up in St. Paul's Rondo Neighborhood. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, he became editor of a Black newspaper. Wilkins was hired by the NAACP, eventually becoming its executive director. He called Martin Luther King Jr. a friend and took part in several notable marches of the civil rights movement.

"He was all about fighting inequality," Professor Sam Imbo, Department Chair of Philosophy at Hamline University said. "He was part of the march from Selma to Montgomery. He was part of the March on Washington in 63. He witnessed the Civil Rights Act of 64. He witnessed the passing of the Voting Rights Bill in 65."

In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson awarded Wilkins the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor.

"His strategy was one of making change through legal means, going through the process," Imbo said. "Having been raised in Minnesota has a lot to do with it. You talk to people and try to make change that way."

WIlkins died in 1981. In 1985, St. Paul Auditorium was renamed Roy Wilkins Auditorium. 


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