Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Congressional Gold Medal Honoring Roy Wilkins

January 16, 1986

The President. Mrs. [Aminda B.] Wilkins, Senator Moynihan, Secretary [of Housing and Urban Development] Pierce, honored guests, today we're gathered to pay homage to an individual who contributed so much to this country. Roy Wilkins was born into an America plagued with segregation and discrimination. Roy Wilkins dedicated his life to eliminating these evils. He has helped make our country a just and a decent land for all Americans.

Roy was a journalist, a communicator by trade. He was also the quintessential American activist. His skills and dedication helped turn the NAACP, a small civil rights organization, into a nationally prominent force for civil rights with hundreds of thousands of members. He turned an issue which many would rather have swept under the rug into a movement America was forced to reckon with. His courage, his dedication to the rights of every individual, his love for all mankind, manifested in his sincere belief in nonviolence -- all of these were inseparable parts of his character. Roy Wilkins was the grandson of a slave. He witnessed and experienced many injustices, yet he was never overcome with hate. He was an individual who sought not to tear down, but to build a better America.

And this spirit was clear to all when in 1949, at a time when the Nation had yet to come to grips with the worst aspects of institutional racism, Roy Wilkins spoke to the convention of the NAACP about the real meaning of Americanism. ``This is our land,'' he said, ``this is our nation. We helped to build it. We have defended it from Boston Common to Iwo Jima.'' With words like this he touched the conscience of his fellow countrymen. As we look back, all Americans are grateful for citizens like Roy Wilkins who dedicated themselves to seeing that America lived up to its promise of liberty and justice for all. And because of Roy Wilkins, we're closer to that noble goal.

It gives me great pleasure, then, to commemorate Roy Wilkins' contributions to the cause of human freedom, contributions that strengthened the moral underpinnings of the American way of life. I have a gold medal specially struck in memory of this great man, Roy Wilkins, an American hero. And Mrs. Wilkins, I would like to present it to you now on behalf of the Congress of the United States and of all of your fellow citizens.

Mrs. Wilkins. Mr. President, I would like to thank you for presenting the medal. I would like to thank Senator Moynihan and Representative Rangel for having introduced in the Congress the bills -- the bill, I should say, or the bills, isn't it, sure -- which was responsible for the creation of this medal. Now, unlike my husband, Mr. President, I'm not a very modest person. [Laughter] So, I will say that this medal was well merited.

The President. I agree.

Mrs. Wilkins. I have in my home two documents that were signed by you. One is a certificate from the University of California for an honorary doctor of laws degree that was given to Roy. The other is a very kind letter that you wrote to me at the time of Roy's death. And I shall always appreciate it. I also have your order at the time of Roy's death which had all American flags all over the world flying at half-mast from the time of his death until after his funeral. I think -- as I say, I'm not modest -- I appreciate your having done this, and I shall always remember it. But I think, Mr. President, he deserved this honor, too.

The President. Mrs. Wilkins, I agree with you completely, and I'm very proud to have been able to do the things that you have just said here in his behalf and in his memory.

Mrs. Wilkins. Roy, you see, was a real patriot; I think one of the best patriots, because he loved this country and he spent his whole adult life working for the truths upon which this country was founded. He believed that this country should have integrity, and this is what he devoted his life to. And so I say to you, thank you again for everything, but mostly for remembering the extraordinary man to whom I had the joy of being married for 52 years.

Note: The President spoke at 4:46 p.m. in the Oval Office at the White House.