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Wilkins was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and grew up in Michigan. He was educated at Crispus Attucks Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri, then Creston High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Wilkins received a bachelor's degree in 1953, and a L.L.B. in 1956 from the University of Michigan, where he interned with the NAACP and was a member of the senior leadership society, Michigamua.
Wilkins worked as a welfare lawyer in Ohio before becoming an Assistant Attorney General in President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration at age 33, one of the highest-ranking blacks ever to serve in the executive branch up to that time. Leaving government in 1969 at the end of the Johnson administration, he worked briefly for the Ford Foundation before joining the editorial staff of the Washington Post.
Along with Carl Bernstein, Herbert Block ("Herblock"), and Bob Woodward, Wilkins earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for exposing the Watergate scandal that eventually forced President Richard Nixon's resignation from office. He left the Post in 1974 to work for the New York Times, followed five years later by a brief stay at the now-defunct Washington Star. In 1980 he became a radio news commentator, work he still does today for National Public Radio (NPR).
Wilkins was the Robinson Professor of History and American Culture at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia until his retirement in 2007. During his tenure at George Mason, Wilkins was, arguably, one of the most preeminent professors in residence at that time. Wilkins is also the publisher of the NAACP's journal, The Crisis, and is the nephew of Roy Wilkins, a past executive director of the NAACP.
Wilkins resides in Washington, D.C., and is married to Patricia King, Professor of Law at Georgetown University.
- A man's life: an autobiography. 1982, reprinted 1991. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-22673-8.
- Quiet riots: race and poverty in the United States. Edited by Wilkins and Fred Harris. 1998. New York: Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-679-72100-2.
- Jefferson's pillow: the founding fathers and the dilemma of Black patriotism. 2001. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-0956-3.
- Booknotes interview with Wilkins on Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism, August 12, 2001.