Giants in the march toward equality; Roy Wilkins's undeviating journey; Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins, with Tom Mathews. New York: Viking Press. 361 pp. $16.95.

There are books which change you just in the reading, and Roy Wilkins has written such a book. Spanning more than a century, it's as much the story of a movement as of a man.

Mr. Wilkins, who passed on in September 1981, soon after completing his book, was one of the luminaries of the civil-rights movement. For nearly 50 years he worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) -- as assistant secretary, as editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis (succeeding Dr. W.E.B. DuBois), and as executive director.

Wilkins shuffles the decades like a pack of cards, as -- with an extraordinary blend of passion and restraint -- he chronicles the slow, unfinished process of America's emergence from racism. From slavery and Jim Crow segregation in the South through the more subtle but equally degrading tactics of discrimination that flourish to this day in the North, he shows what it means to be black in America.

He writes, too, of the unforgettable, heart-soaring moments of courage and triumph, and of all those whose lives bore eloquent witness to the fact that a right idea, lived, gathers power and momentum and can overcome every obstacle.

This is a deeply intimate book, and although the emphasis is on ideas, history, and race relations, Wilkins does write of the more personal experiences that molded and sustained him. His unabashed tenderness and love for his wife, Minnie, and for the aunt and uncle who served as his surrogate parents cast their light over the whole of his story.

Yet, for Wilkins, the battle for equality was not an interlude, or even a great cause; it was life itself.

Without self-pity he recalls the bitter happenings which scarred his childhood and broke his father's spirit. He writes, too, of the youthful experiences in St. Paul that sparked his lifelong faith in integration as the means of healing hatred and of those events -- like the murder of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in the sight of his wife and children -- which nearly broke him. He tells of the literature that fed him with a sense of beauty and of possibilities and of the teachers who inspired him.

And he writes, with a pen that seems dipped in fire, of his continuous awakening to the full, nightmarish horror of bigotry: of lynchings, of political and social emasculation, and of the kind of small-heartedness that would relegate a gifted black composer to the segregated balcony at a concert where his works were being honored.

We're introduced to a whole retinue of black world-shapers from all fields of endeavor. And there are many historical surprises in store for the reader. Wilkins argues persuasively that both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy contributed less to the advancement of black rights than is commonly believed. Unexpectedly, it was President Truman who risked losing the presidency to secure some of the first solid gains for civil rights and who comes through as one of the more intrepid and far-seeing pioneers in the journey toward equality.

Wilkins cites cases where the NAACP -- often viewed as having worked exclusively through the courts -- took direct action to forward its cause. Yet during the 1960s the organization came under attack from some who felt its voice was too moderate, its emphasis on legal action too abstract, and its vision out of touch with the needs of modern blacks.

Ironically, Wilkins's unwavering advocacy of racial integration (a position once assailed as radical) provoked the harshest accusations and precipitated death threats from some of the more militant blacks.

To read this book is to see just how well, despite his reserve and his dearly bought self-containment, Wilkins understood the anguish that ripped and gnawed at his people and how deeply such accusations wounded him.

Nor did he view the work of other organizations as unimportant. But he thought many of their efforts -- even those that did not advocate violence -- were divisive. He believed that to attain their ends such organizations must stop competing with each other.

To read this book is also to witness the saddening process through which the efforts of great innovators are so often unjustly maligned, and the way in which we sometimes take less note of the progress made than of the limitations and fumbling of the process.

Wilkins helped unleash the winds of change, and, when they blew, the upheaval may have been misunderstood as proof that the goal was unattainable. And his adherence to his principles caused him to be charged with cowardice by those who stood, unknowing, upon the shoulders of his achievement.

Wilkins took a different, longer, view, which often proved prophetic. As usage changed, for example -- from ''colored'' to ''Negro'' and from ''Negro'' to ''black'' -- Wilkins drew fire for his refusal to alter the NAACP's name. But seen in the context of his little-known belief that other nations had to be included in the organization's mission, his stubbornness makes more sense. Today, ''people of color'' is almost universally preferred to ''nonwhite'' in speaking collectively of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Indians, native Americans, and people of mixed race.

Any effort to assess the courage of the man or the magnitude of his contribution must take into account that, as Wilkins poured his energies into his work, against constant, bitter resistance, he was stepping forth into uncertainty and often seeming failure.

Describing the days when people were gunned down while registering to vote, Wilkins writes: ''If I had known at the time how many more martyrs were to come, I don't know whether I would have had the heart to go on.'' That he did persevere -- always subordinating himself to the idea he served -- is a mark of his utter trustworthiness.

His book allows us to participate in an astonishing political and spiritual voyage; a voyage which called for sacrifices of a nature which no one person can demand of another, but which need to be understood and honored.

We need this book, because such battles often don't stay won and have to be refought in each generation. Wilkins knew this, as few could, and yet, at book's end, in a chapter called ''A Faith for Hard Times'' he sums up his motive force and writes:''We must never lose faith in the justness of our cause and the certainty of our success. . . . All my life I have believed these things, and . . . I share this faith with others . . . I know that it will last and guide us long after I am gone.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.