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CRS Remembers Former Directors Roger Wilkins and Ben Holman as Part of Black History Month

On January 27, 1966, Civil rights activist, historian, and journalist, Roger W. Wilkins (Wilkins) (1932 – 2017) was appointed as Director of the Community Relations Service (CRS) by President Lyndon B. Johnson and confirmed by the United States Senate.   A 1956 graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, Wilkins worked as a welfare lawyer in Ohio before joining President Johnson’s administration, making him one of the highest-ranking African Americans to serve in the Executive branch up to that time.

Roger W. Wilkins

During Director Wilkins’ tenure at the CRS, he spearheaded efforts to address racial tensions that fueled the urban riots of the 1960s. For example, at President Johnson’s request, he traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, immediately following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  As director of CRS, he was also on site during other civil disorders of the 1960s, including those that occurred in Detroit, Chicago, and Newark.  While under his leadership, CRS moved beyond just responding to crises to addressing the underlying issues which caused them as a means to prevent racial conflicts and outbreaks of violence.

Wilkins left CRS in 1969, working briefly for the Ford Foundation. He then joined The Washington Post editorial board and won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1973 for his editorials about the Watergate scandal.  A year later, he left The Washington Post to work for the New York Times where he was the first African-American member of the editorial board and an Op-Ed page columnist. In the late 1980s, he became a professor of history and American culture at George Mason University (GMU) in the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. He retired from GMU in 2007. He was the author of two books, Jefferson’s Pillow (2001), in which he discusses how class, education, and personality allowed for the institution of slavery, and his autobiography, A Man’s Life (1982).

To honor the legacy of former Director Wilkins, CRS in 2017 created the Roger W. Wilkins Peacemaker Award, which recognizes a CRS employee whose extraordinary contributions reflect Director Wilkins’ lifelong commitment to public service and the principles underlying the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

On April 7, 1969, Ben Holman (Holman) (1930–2007) was sworn in as the third Director of the Community Relations Service (CRS).  As Director, he also held the status of Assistant Attorney General, making him the United States Department of Justice’s highest ranking African American in leadership at that time.

Director Holman led CRS in taking more effective steps to enlist the support of the private sector in addressing critical problems in communities nationwide. He also allocated more resources to assist communities in developing local programs and projects. From the late 1960s through the late 1970s, he crisscrossed the country to help mediate racial disputes. During his tenure as director of CRS, he dealt with the desegregation of public accommodations and schools, busing, and police and community relations, among other issues.

Prior to joining CRS, he had established a successful journalism career, and while at CRS, he created media relations programs to help journalists navigate racial problems during the civil rights movement. A graduate of the University of Kansas, he began his career in 1952 as a reporter for the Chicago Daily. A decade later, he made the transition to television, first as a commentator and reporter for Chicago’s WBBM-TV and later as a correspondent and editor for CBS News in New York. In 1968, he joined NBC News in Washington as a correspondent and producer.

A year later, President Richard Nixon appointed Mr. Holman as director of CRS. After serving eight years in this role, he began his academic career as a visiting and then full professor in the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1978.  He was the college’s only African American full professor from 1978 to 1983 and also served as Dean of the college during his tenure there. He retired in 2004.

When the College of Journalism became the Philip Merrill College of Journalism in 2001 and moved into a new building on campus, an office was named after Mr. Holman to honor his career and impact on scores of University of Maryland students.

Updated September 20, 2021