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Walter White, author and chief executive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) between 1929 and 1955, was born in Atlanta, Georgia. According to the New York Times obituary of March 22, 1955, “Mr. White, the nearest approach to a national leader of American Negroes since Booker T. Washington, was a Negro by choice” (p. 31). White had blond hair, blue eyes, and a complexion that was light enough to “pass” for white. But if ever White questioned his racial identity, the 1906 Atlanta race riot made clear to him that he was African American. During this pogrom, a white mob threatened to attack his family home, and at the age of thirteen he determined that he could never be part of a race that carried within it such a ghastly hatred. His aspect and the riot were central to his life and career as an advocate for race advancement.
Upon his graduation from Atlanta University in 1916, White helped to found the Atlanta branch of the NAACP. He joined the national staff in January of 1918, and for the next eight years his primary responsibility was conducting undercover investigations of lynchings and race riots. He investigated forty-one such instances. Passing for white, White tricked whites into giving him candid accounts of the recent violence, which the NAACP would then publicize. “I Investigate Lynchings,” which appeared in the July 1929 issue of American Mercury, is White’s account of his investigative exploits. Rope and Faggot, published in 1929 and still considered authoritative, is his detailed analysis of the extent and causes of lynching.
When James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) retired from the NAACP in 1929, White was elevated to the position of secretary. During both the Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) and Harry Truman (1884-1972) administrations, White’s style of working for political gain by rallying enlightened elites achieved stunning results. His close friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), who joined the NAACP board of directors following her husband’s death, gave him direct access to the White House. He orchestrated massive support in Congress for an antilynching law, which was defeated only by filibustering southern Democratic senators. White also organized Marian Anderson’s (1897-1993) historic Easter 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., including a sponsoring committee studded with New Deal officials. In 1941 White collaborated with A. Philip Randolph’s (1889-1979) March on Washington movement, which pressured President Roosevelt into issuing Executive Order 8802 banning racial discrimination in defense industries. White persuaded President Truman to appoint a civil rights commission, which produced the report To Secure These Rights in 1947.
During White’s tenure as NAACP secretary, the association launched a series of legal suits designed to ensure equality between the races in education. This effort culminated in the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared unconstitutional the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
During World War II (1939-1945), White promoted the idea that an allied victory should lead to both the dismantling of European colonialism and racial equality for African Americans. He pursued these goals in 1945 as one of three NAACP consultants to the U.S. delegation to the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco and again in 1948 as a consultant to the U.S. delegation to the UN General Assembly meeting in Paris. Yet his friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt and alliance with President Truman precluded White from advocating the more expansive definition of human rights favored by W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) and Paul Robeson (1898-1976) that included economic and social as well as political rights.
White’s twenty-six year marriage to Gladys Powell, an African American, ended in divorce in 1948. The following year he married Poppy Cannon, a white woman born in South Africa. Many in the NAACP objected and called for White’s resignation. Eleanor Roosevelt threatened to resign from the board of directors should White be dismissed, thereby saving his position. He remained NAACP executive secretary until his death (he had been in declining health for several years) but with diminished powers.
Walter White’s importance lay in his organizational skills and leadership style. His abilities to successfully cultivate ties with people of influence both in and out of government and to popularize and publicize the association and its program were instrumental to placing civil rights on the national agenda.
- Janken, Kenneth Robert. 2003. WHITE: The Biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP. New York: New Press.
- New York Times. 1955. Walter White, 61, Dies in Home Here. March 22: 31.
- White, Walter. 1948. A Man Called White: The Autobiography of Walter White. New York: Viking.
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