White, Walter F. 1893–1955
Walter White F. 1893–1955
Civil rights leader, writer
In August of 1906, when Walter White was 13 years old, a race riot broke out in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. A mob of angry white men surrounded the house where he and his family crouched in darkness, the teenager and his father holding guns, prepared to defend themselves. Before the mob could begin its assault, however, it was driven off by gunfire from a neighboring house. White found himself relieved of the necessity of killing; as he wrote in his 1948 autobiography, A Man Called White, he was also filled with an intense awareness of his identity as an African-American. “I was glad I was not one of those who hated.... I was glad I was not one of those whose story is in the history of the world, a record of bloodshed, rapine, and pillage. I was glad my mind and spirit were part of the races that had not fully awakened, and who therefore had still before them the opportunity to write a record of virtue as a memorandum to Armageddon.” But White was also aware of a strange irony: his skin was as light as those of his attackers.
This irony followed him throughout his career. He was a pale-skinned, blue-eyed, blond black man named White, who headed the nation’s leading civil rights organization. In a time when many light-skinned African-Americans “passed” if they could get away with it, Walter White insisted on his racial identity—except when he went undercover, posing as a white man to investigate lynchings. In nearly four decades of working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he helped lift the organization from obscurity to a position of influence in which its support was sought even by U.S. presidents. As a writer and friend to writers, White was a major force in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s that created a distinctive black voice in American literature.
Walter Francis White was born into a middle-class family that lived on the boundary between a black and a white neighborhood in Atlanta. His father had grown up poor but had attended college for one year before taking the civil service examination and getting one of the few good jobs open to blacks in the South at that time, as a mail carrier. The family was comfortable enough to send Walter to Atlanta University, where he played football, was a member of the debate team, and was elected president of the class of 1916. He also worked part-time for the Standard Life Insurance Company, selling policies in rural Georgia and preparing actuarial tables. After graduation he worked
Born Walter Francis White, July 1, 1893, in Atlanta, GA; died of a heart attack, March 21, 1955; son of George (a mail carrier) and Madeline White; married Leah Gladys Powell (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] staff member) February 15, 1922 (divorced, 1949); married Poppy Cannon (a writer), July 6, 1950. Education: Atlanta University, B.A., 1916; graduate study at City College of New York, 1920s.
Standard Life Insurance Co., Atlanta, GA, clerk, cashier, and salesman, 1916-1917; NAACP, New York City, assistant secretary, 1918-1931, executive secretary, 1931-1955. Writer, 1924-55.
Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1926; Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, 1937.
for the company full-time as a clerk, cashier, and salesman, which, he wrote, “disproved, I hoped, the prediction which had been freely made that I was too young and too much interested in having a good time to do a good job satisfactorily.”
In the autumn of 1916 the black community of Atlanta heard disturbing news: the local school board had decided to build a new high school for white students—there were no public high schools for blacks—and to pay for it with money saved by eliminating seventh grade education for black students. Though many wanted to resist the board’s action, the community was unsure how to proceed. It was decided that the New York headquarters of the NAACP would be contacted with a request for help and advice, and White was delegated to write the letter.
At that time, the NAACP was only seven years old, with fewer than 9,000 members, only a handful of staff, and a tiny budget. There was no branch of the organization in Atlanta, but one was hastily organized, with White as its secretary. The campaign to save the black schools lasted over a year, inspiring tactics that would later become standard in the civil rights movement, including boycotts and a mass voter registration drive. These efforts succeeded not only in saving the seventh grade, but in winning a black high school and repairs to black elementary schools. The NAACP sent James Weldon Johnson, the distinguished black playwright who had joined its staff as field secretary, to speak at a mass meeting. White also spoke at the meeting, and Johnson was so impressed that on his return to New York City he wrote to White offering him a job at NAACP headquarters.
Though the NAACP’s future seemed uncertain and the pay offered by the organization was less than what he was earning with Standard Life, White accepted the position. He reported for work in New York on January 31, 1918, to what both he and his superiors assumed would be an office job. The nature of his duties changed dramatically within weeks. On February 12, a brutal lynching occurred in Estill Springs, Tennessee, during which a black sharecropper was slowly burned to death for defending himself against a beating. White offered to travel to Tennessee to investigate in person, and Johnson reluctantly agreed.
Though White had often been mistaken for a white man, this was the first time he deliberately tried to “pass.” His ploy was successful, and he not only uncovered many details of the lynching, but got the participants to admit that the beating that prompted it had been unprovoked and that the white man who had started the incident was generally disliked. Nevertheless, one of the locals told White, as he remembered in his autobiography, “Any time a nigger hits a white man, he’s gotta be handled or else all the niggers will get out of hand.”
White returned to New York and published his findings; he also traveled to Washington to tell senators and congressmen the gruesome details, hoping to encourage them to support the antilynching laws that were regularly proposed and defeated during the 1920s. It was only the first of many such undercover investigations White carried out, some of which led to narrow escapes, as when he left Phillips County, Arkansas, only minutes before a mob planned to ambush him. When he boarded the train out of town, the conductor informed him that he was leaving just as “the fun” was about to start. White disclosed in A Man Called White: “In answer to my question about the nature of the ’fun,’ he replied, ’There’s a damned yellow nigger down here passing for white and the boys are going to get him.’ ’What’ll they do with him?’ I asked. Shifting his cud of tobacco, he shook his head grimly and assured me, ’When they get through with him he won’t pass for white no more!...’ Late that evening in Memphis I learned that news had been circulating there that I had been lynched in Arkansas that afternoon.”
Life for White was not always so grim, however. The Harlem Renaissance was getting under way, and James Weldon Johnson was at the heart of it. As African-American culture exploded, New York City’s Harlem became the center of the new vitality in black literature, poetry, theater, and music. Johnson introduced White to Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and other black writers, as well as white notables like composer George Gershwin and writers Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, and H. L. Mencken.
It was Mencken who recommended White try his own hand at writing. Mencken asked for White’s comments on a novel featuring black characters that had been written by a white writer. In his autobiography, White praised the book for its portrayal of blacks as “human beings instead of menials or buffoons,” but he also said that the depiction of educated blacks was inadequate. Mencken in turn suggested that White write a novel about educated African-Americans. White had never contemplated becoming a writer, but with encouragement from Johnson and others he took a typewriter to a friend’s cottage in Massachusetts and completed a first draft in 12 days.
The resulting novel, The Fire in the Flint, told the story of Kenneth Harper, a young black doctor who returns to his hometown after training in a northern medical school determined to improve conditions for his people. He comes into conflict with both blacks and whites and is finally lynched by the local Ku Klux Klan when he goes to a white woman’s house at night to operate on her seriously ill daughter. Years later White admitted that The Fire in the Flint was melodramatic and of modest literary merit. Robert Bone, writing in The Negro Novel in America, called it “a series of essays strung on an unconvincing plot,” a judgment that Edward E. Waldron pronounced “too severe”in Walter White and the Harlem Renaissance.
The manuscript got immediate attention from publishers; the first to express an interest was George Doran and Company after editor John Farrar read the first draft and was impressed by it. The company eventually rejected the book, however, on the grounds that it was too one-sided in its harsh portrayal of whites and that the black characters were not what readers would expect.
White refused to make the changes Doran requested and instead submitted The Fire in the Flint to Alfred A. Knopf, who accepted it quickly and published it in the autumn of 1924. It sold moderately well and stirred up some controversy—something White encouraged by sending review copies to the most notoriously racist newspapers in the country in hope of provoking denunciations. One such appeared in the Savannah Press, which called The Fire in the Flint,“the worst libel we have seen on the South and Southern men and women.” But most critical response was positive, and White was widely viewed not only as a promising young author, but as the precursor of a new generation of black writers. As Waldron wrote, Fire “helped open doors for works on subjects that before had been taboo by showing that such works could sell, and... enabled [White] to help other black artists make the contacts they needed to bring their work to the public eye.”
Heartened by the success of The Fire in the Flint, White began another novel almost immediately. Flight, his second work of fiction, however, was not a commercial success. In 1926 White was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to write a third novel—a chronicle of three generations of a black family; he traveled to France to write it but found himself unable to do so. Instead he began work on a book about Iynching, and about Charles Lynch, who gave his name to vigilante murder. Rope and Faggot was published in 1929 and, as White remembered in A Man Called White,“was cordially received by reviewers, including many in the South, as the first attempt to analyze the causative factors of lynchings.”
From then on White’s writing was limited to books and articles on racial issues, but it was by no means the end of his involvement with the black literary community. He was both mentor and friend to many young black novelists and poets and worked tirelessly to bring their work to the attention of publishers and readers. His most important contribution to the Harlem Renaissance, wrote Waldron, “was not his writing, but his aid to artists who were at the core of that movement.”
Throughout this time White also continued his work for the NAACP. During the mid-1920s the association worked successfully to integrate the staff of the hospital for black veterans at Tuskegee, Alabama; organized the successful defense of the Sweet family, accused of murder in Detroit for shooting a member of a white mob that was storming their house; and began a long campaign to establish the right of blacks to vote in primary elections. The NAACP also continued to lobby for a federal antilynching law, though even White’s reports of the horrors he found in his investigations could not overcome the resistance of southem senators to a law that they claimed would violate states‘ rights. A near-success in 1938 was stymied by filibusters, but the debate brought national attention to the problem of lynchings and put White on the cover of Time magazine.
A major test of the NAACP’s influence came in 1930, when John J. Parker, a federal circuit court judge from North Carolina, was nominated to the Supreme Court by president Herbert Hoover. Parker was an unknown entity at first, but the NAACP soon unearthed newspaper reports revealing that he had supported laws intended to prevent blacks from voting and had described black participation in politics as “a source of evil and danger to both races,” as White revealed in his autobiography. The NAACP asked Parker whether he had been quoted correctly and whether he still held the same views. When Parker did not respond, the association decided to actively oppose the nomination, even though, White wrote, “the consensus of Washington opinion was that the inquiry would be a matter of form and that confirmation was inevitable.”
White testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and organized a letter-writing campaign. “At first a trickle,” he recalled, “the telegrams, letters, petitions, long distance telephone calls, and personal visits to senators in Washington grew to an avalanche.... Senators who had at first been apathetic or contemptuous began to pay attention to the unprecedented articulateness of Negroes.” The fight was a bitter one, but when the vote was taken on May 7, 1930, the tally was 39 votes for confirmation and 41 against—proving, to the dismay of the white establishment, that blacks could no longer be disregarded as a political force. The point was driven home over the next few years as the NAACP was instrumental in defeating several senators who had voted to confirm Parker. Hoover’s intransigence in championing his nominee also played a substantial role in alienating blacks from the Republican party and so contributed to the election of Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.
In 1931 James Weldon Johnson’s health forced him to resign as secretary of the NAACP, and White, who had been serving as acting secretary since 1930, was chosen to replace him. Under White’s leadership, the association began to develop a broad strategy for attacking discrimination at its roots, rather than simply reacting to individual cases as they arose. It fought for the right to vote, the right of blacks to be admitted to professional and graduate schools in state universities, and for equal pay for black teachers in public schools. In these areas blacks won a steady series of victories in the courts and in public opinion. The goal of a law against lynching remained out of reach, however, and dozens of blacks continued to be murdered by mobs each year.
The NAACP’s influence continued to grow throughout the 1940s, and for many people, Walter White was the NAACP. During World War II he traveled widely overseas in support of the war effort, at the same time fighting discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces. He also took on racial stereotypes in the entertainment industry and tried to ease tensions when riots broke out in Detroit and Harlem in the summer of 1943. After the war the pace of reform accelerated, with the desegregation of the Armed Forces and many trade unions, the 1948 Supreme Court decision outlawing restrictive covenants in real estate deeds—something for which the NAACP had fought for over 30 years— and, finally, the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision that desegregated public schools on May 17, 1954.
White’s second wife, Poppy Cannon, in her memoir A Gentle Knight, recalled the speech White gave at a party the day the decision was handed down: “I can’t help thinking of the number of times in the last thirty-five years,” he said, “when some of my very closest friends told me that I was a damn fool—for believing that within a reasonable period of time we could really smash segregation in America.... Yet we together...have created a miracle.... But this is not the end.... There are some of us who will not be around much longer.... But there will be new people coming into the struggle and they will have to complete the fight in which today we won possibly the greatest victory that has been won since the infamous Dred Scott decision.”
Walter White did not live to see the flowering of the civil rights movement in the second half of the 1950s. He died of a heart attack on March 21, 1955. More than 3,000 people attended his funeral, and President Eisenhower praised him in Time as “a vigorous champion of justice and equality.” The magazine’s obituary for White noted, “The year White was born... 152 U.S. citizens, mostly Negroes, were murdered by mobs. In his lifetime, 3,017 men and women were lynched in the U.S., but when Walter White died... there had been no lynchings for four years.... As Walter White died, his old enemy Jim Crow was dying too.”
The Lynchings of May, 1918, in Brooks and Lowndes Counties, Georgia: An Investigation by Walter White, NAACP, 1918.
The Fire in the Flint, Knopf, 1924.
Flight, Knopf, 1926.
Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch, Knopf, 1929.
(With Thurgood Marshall) What Caused the Detroit Riot?, NAACP, 1943.
A Rising Wind, Doubleday, 1945.
A Man Called White (autobiography), Viking, 1948.
Civil Rights: Fifty Years of Fighting, Pittsburgh Courier Publishing Company, 1950.
How Far the Promised Land?, Viking, 1955.
Contributor to periodicals, including American Mercury, Crisis, Nation, and New Republic.
Cannon, Poppy, A Gentle Knight: My Husband, Walter White, Rinehart, 1956.
Waldron, Edward E., Walter White and the Harlem Renaissance, Kennikat Press, 1978.
White, Walter, A Man Called White, Viking, 1948.
Nation, January 29, 1949; April 23, 1955.
New Yorker, September 4, 1948; September 11, 1948.
Saturday Review, October 2, 1948.
Time, January 24, 1938; April 4, 1955.
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