Josephine Mathewson Wilkins
social and civil activist. Voting Advocate.
2022 Honoree, Georgia Women of Achievement
The social reformer and civil rights activist Josephine Wilkins was born in Athens, Georgia on September 30, 1893. Her parents, John Julian Wilkins, Sr. and Jessie Stanley Horton Wilkins, were prominent Athenians with interests in banking and manufacturing. The Wilkins family occupied residences on Milledge Avenue and at the Biltmore Hotel in Atlanta, and attended the Episcopal Church. As a sharp and thoughtful young woman, Wilkins struggled with blind belief, often wrestling with the teachings of the Episcopal ministers. She later recalled that her “first crisis” in life was “over religion.” Wilkins attended the Lucy Cobb Institute in Athens before moving to New York City for finishing school. After completing her degree at the University of Georgia, she enrolled in the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts. While in New York, Wilkins indulged her curious nature by taking a course in social science at Columbia, and a subsequent trip to Europe exposed her to different ways of living around the world. She then returned to Athens and began to get involved with the legislature’s attempt to revise the child labor laws. Wilkins had reached a turning point, telling her sister, “Now this is it; more interested in people than I am in things.”
The 1920s saw Wilkins begin her political and civic activism in earnest. Shortly after returning from New York, she attended a meeting of the League of Women Voters (LWV) on the invitation of Roberta Hodgson and soon joined the organization. At about the same time, Wilkins also began working with the Georgia Children’s Code Commission, established by the legislature three years earlier to study statutes relating to children. Wilkins remained active in both organizations over the following decades. She represented the LWV on the Children’s Code Commission from 1929 to 1934, helping to pass important revisions to the state’s child labor laws. In 1934, she was elected state president of the Georgia LWV, a position that introduced her to the anti-lynching activist Jessie Daniel Ames. During her time in the LWV, she made the organization into an
important force in Georgia state politics. Eager to expand beyond the reach of the LWV, Wilkins began to look for ways to bring people together in the name of reform.
In 1937, she led the creation of the Citizen’s Fact-Finding Movement of Georgia (CFFM), which coordinated seventeen organizations throughout the state ranging from the Farm Bureau to the Kiwanis Club. The goal of the organization was to provide basic information on the state of Georgia’s historical background, its struggles with poverty, as well as its valuable human and natural assets. Through publishing pamphlets that informed citizens of the positives and negatives of the state, the CFFM looked to facilitate movements to solve problems. Wilkins served as administrator of the CFFM from its inception in 1937 until its dissolution in 1949. The CFFM’s findings spurred the administration of Gov. Ellis Arnall to enact more than 40 pieces of legislation, and also produced the 1938 Report to the President on the Economic Conditions of the South.
Wilkins was also influential in the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW), helping to write its by-laws. Formed in 1938 and based on Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proclamation that “the South is the nation’s number one economic problem,” the SCHW sought to more effectively implement New Deal-style reforms in the South. In an attempt to avoid the pitfalls that so often plague interracial organizing, the SCHW focused on broad-based issues affecting the region’s workers and farmers. One of their most influential initiatives was to oppose the poll tax, which failed, but brought early attention to voting rights in the South. Ultimately, the SCHW folded after much pressure regarding the presence of Communists within its ranks. “Those were the McCarthy days. It was hard going,” Wilkins remembered, referring to the anti-communist hysteria of the post-war period. As a progressive southerner, Wilkins’s work drew her increasingly into the arena of civil rights. She moved onto the Southern Conference Educational Fund, which emerged from the ashes of the SCHW. There she came into contact with Anne and Carl Braden, as well as activists in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
In 1944, Wilkins was instrumental in founding the Southern Regional Council(SRC),a successor to the Commission on Interracial Cooperation that dated to 1919. Under the leadership of Dr. Howard Odum, the SRC primarily appealed to southern whites through publications and studies on race relations. The question of segregation roiled the ranks, with Lilian Smith pressuring the group to take a stronger stand against the practice in 1949. Although membership waned afterwards, the fight to desegregate schools after Brown v. Board reinvigorated the group. Wilkins was active in the SRC through the height of the civil rights movement, serving as an executive board member and vice-president. Health issues caused Wilkins to curtail her activism beginning in the 1950s. Nevertheless, she continued to act as an advisor to the Migrant Children’s Fund, the National Sharecroppers Fund, the SCEF, and SNCC, all while writing for the magazines New South and The Nation as their United Nations correspondent. From 1954 to her death, she served as president of Wilkins, Inc., handling her family’s interests and dedicating considerable resources to philanthropy. Wilkins passed away in Port Charlotte, Florida in 1977. She is buried at Oconee Hill Cemetery in her hometown of Athens.