White, Walter Francis

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White, Walter Francis

July 1, 1893
March 21, 1955

Civil rights leader Walter White, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1931 to 1955, was born in Atlanta, Georgia. Blond and blue-eyed, he was an African American by choice and social circumstance. In 1906, at age thirteen, he stood, rifle in hand, with his father to protect their home and faced down a mob of whites who had invaded their neighborhood in search of "nigger" blood. He later explained: "I knew then who I was. I was a Negro, a human being with an invisible pigmentation which marked me a person to be hunted, hanged, abused, discriminated against, kept in poverty and ignorance, in order that those whose skin was white would have readily at hand a proof of their superiority, a proof patent and inclusive, accessible to the moron and the idiot as well as to the wise man and the genius."

In 1918, when the NAACP hired White as assistant executive secretary to investigate lynchings, sixty-seven such crimes were committed that year in sixteen states. By 1955, when he died, there were only three lynchings, all in Mississippi, and the NAACP no longer regarded the problem as its top priority. White investigated forty-two lynchings, mostly in the Deep South, and eight race riots in the North that developed between World War I and after World War II in such cities as Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Omaha, and Detroit.

In August 1946 White helped to create a National Emergency Committee Against Mob Violence. The following month, he led a delegation of labor and civic leaders in a visit with President Harry S. Truman to demand federal action to end the problem. Truman responded by creating the President's Committee on Civil Rights, headed by Charles E. Wilson, chair and president of General Electric. The committee's report, To Secure These Rights, provided the blueprint for the NAACP legislative struggle.

The NAACP's successful struggle against segregation in the armed services was one of White's major achievements. In 1940, as a result of the NAACP's intense protests, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Judge William H. Hastie as civilian aide to the secretary of war, promoted Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, the highest-ranking black officer in the Army, to brigadier general, and appointed Colonel Campbell Johnson as special aide to the director of Selective Service. As significant as these steps were, they did not satisfy White because they were woefully inadequate. So he increasingly intensified the NAACP's efforts in this area.

White then attempted to get the U.S. Senate to investigate employment discrimination and segregation in the armed services, but the effort failed. He therefore persuaded the NAACP board to express its support for the threat by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, to lead a march on Washington to demand jobs for blacks in the defense industries and an end to segregation in the military. To avoid the protest, President Roosevelt on June 25, 1941, issued Executive Order 8802, barring discrimination in the defense industries and creating the Fair Employment Practice Committee. That was the first time a U.S. president acted to end racial discrimination, and the date marked the launching of the modern civil rights movement. Subsequently, the NAACP made the quest for presidential leadership in protecting the rights of blacks central to its programs.

As a special war correspondent for the New York Post in 1943 and 1945, White visited the European, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Pacific theaters of operations and provided the War Department with extensive recommendations for ending racial discrimination in the military. His book A Rising Wind reported on the status of black troops in the European and Mediterranean theaters.

White was as much an internationalist as a civil rights leader. In 1921 he attended the second Pan-African Congress sessions in England, Belgium, and France, which were sponsored by the NAACP and led by W. E. B. Du Bois. While on a year's leave of absence from the NAACP in 1949 and 1950, he participated in the "Round the World Town Meeting of the Air," visiting Europe, Israel, Egypt, India, and Japan.

In 1945 White, Du Bois, and Mary McLeod Bethune represented the NAACP as consultants to the American delegation at the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco. They urged that the colonial system be abolished, that the United Nations recognize equality of the races, that it adopt a bill of rights for all people, and that an international agency be established to replace the colonial system. Many of their recommendations were adopted by the United Nations.

White similarly protested the menial roles that blacks were forced to play in Hollywood films and sought an end to the harmful and dangerous stereotypes of the race that the industry was spreading. He enlisted the aid of Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential candidate who was defeated in 1940 and who had become counsel to the motion picture industry, in appealing to Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and other major studios and producers for more representative roles for blacks in films. He then contemplated creating an NAACP bureau in Hollywood to implement the organization's programs there. Although the bureau idea fizzled, the NAACP did create a Beverly HillsHollywood branch in addition to others in California.

During White's tenure as executive secretary, the NAACP won the right to vote for blacks in the South by getting the U.S. Supreme Court to declare the white Democratic primary unconstitutional, opposed the poll tax and other devices used to discriminate against blacks at the polls, forged an alliance between the organization and the industrial trade unions, removed constitutional roadblocks to residential integration, equalized teachers' salaries in the South, and ended segregation in higher education institutions, in addition to winning the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, overturning the Supreme Court's "separate but equal" doctrine. Overall, White led the NAACP to become the nation's dominant force in the struggle to get the national government to uphold the Constitution and protect the rights of African Americans.

White was a gregarious, sociable man who courted on a first-name basis a vast variety of people of accomplishment and influence, including Willkie, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harold Ickes, and Governor Averell Harriman of New York. In 1949 he created a furor by divorcing his first wife, Gladys, and marrying Poppy Cannon, a white woman who was a magazine food editor.

In addition to his many articles, White wrote two weekly newspaper columns. One was for the Chicago Defender, a respected black newspaper, and the other for white newspapers such as the Sunday New York HeraldTribune. He wrote two novels, The Fire in the Flint (1924) and Flight (1926); Rope and Faggot (1929, reprint 1969), an exhaustive study of lynchings; A Man Called White (1948), an autobiography; and A Rising Wind (1945). An assessment of civil rights progress, How Far the Promised Land? was published shortly after White's death in 1955.

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Lynching; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)


Janken, Kenneth Robert. White: The Biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP. New York: The New Press, 2003.

Report of the Secretary to the NAACP National Board of Directors, 1940, 1941, 1942.

Sitkoff, Harvard. A New Deal for Blacks, The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The Depression Decade. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Watson, Denton L. Lion in the Lobby, Clarence Mitchell, Jr.'s Struggle for the Passage of Civil Rights Laws. New York: William Morrow, 1990.

Wolters, Raymond. Negroes and the Great Depression: The Problem of Economic Recovery. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970.

denton l. watson (1996)
Updated bibliography

Walter Francis White

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Walter Francis White

Walter Francis White (1893-1955), general secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for 24 years, was an outspoken critic of lynching and racial injustice in America.

Walter White was born in 1893 in Atlanta, Georgia. His father, George, was a postman, and his mother, Madeline, a former school-teacher. The younger of two sons in a family of seven children, all light enough to pass for white, he was raised in an eight room, two story house on the edge of the ghetto. Their light complexion caused them a variety of problems. Aboard Atlanta's Jim Crow cars, the family found that if they sat in the "white" section, African Americans accused them of passing; if they sat in the African American section, they faced embarrassing stares and rude remarks. To avoid humiliation, the children walked everywhere or rode in the surrey their father had purchased.

When he was 13, Walter learned "that there is no isolation from life." In 1906 Atlanta was engulfed in a race riot and Walter and his father found themselves in the midst of an angry white mob. But their color shielded them from violence as white rioters bypassed them in search of victims to kill or maim. Back in the African American section father and son stood guard as whites invaded their neighborhood. With guns cocked they waited as whites planned to torch their home. Shots from a neighboring building scared away the would-be arsonists.

The Atlanta public school system was "separate" but decidedly "unequal." White attended school from eight to two in the afternoon in a poorly staffed, "double shifted" elementary school. His father sent him to the private high school department of an Atlanta African American college because there were no high schools for African Americans in Atlanta.

After graduation from Atlanta University in 1916, he worked for a time for Standard Life, a major African American insurance company, and helped organize the Atlanta National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As secretary of the new branch, he led the drive to force the city to improve its public facilities for African Americans and attracted the attention of James Weldon Johnson, the first African American general secretary of the organization. A year later Johnson secured White's appointment as assistant to the organization's chief administrative officer. While visiting Chicago, he narrowly escaped an ambush during the 1919 race riot. This time the assailant was an African American man who fired at what he thought was a white man walking through the ghetto.

Twelve days after his appointment, White volunteered to go to Tennessee to investigate a lynching on Lincoln's birthday. An African American sharecropper had been slowly burned by a white mob for defending himself against a beating by his employer. White learned that the employer was widely disliked by the townspeople, but that they figured African Americans might get out of hand if any African American, no matter what his justification, resisted any white authority.

In the next few years White personally investigated a dozen race riots and two dozen lynchings. Posing as a white reporter who wanted to give the South's side of the story, he was invited to join the Ku Klux Klan, and one southern sheriff pinned a badge on him, gave him a gun, and took him along on a hunt for African Americans.

In Helena, Arkansas, on the way to interview Negroes jailed for joining a sharecroppers' union, an African American man whispered that a mob had planned to ambush him. On a northbound train, he talked to a conductor who told him that he was leaving too soon. The townspeople, he was told, were preparing a surprise lynching for an African American who was passing through town. White's observations formed the basis for Rope and Faggot: The Biography of Judge Lynch, published in 1929.

White was assistant secretary of the NAACP from 1918 to 1929, when he replaced Johnson as acting secretary. In 1931 Johnson decided not to return to active leadership and White replaced him, presiding over the organization during the Depression, New Deal, World War II, and the Supreme Court's historic Brown v. Board of Education decision out-lawing school segregation.

During his tenure White faced several crises. He opposed W. E. B. DuBois' call for "black economic self-determination" as contrary to the integrationist aims of the organization. Younger African American intellectuals such as Abram Harris, Ralph Bunche, and E. Franklin Frazier, while critical of the organization, joined White in criticizing DuBois' plan for an economic "Negro Nation Within a Nation" scheme. DuBois, the longtime editor of the organization's Crisis magazine, resigned in protest in 1934.

The young intellectuals supported, however, a 1934 internal report by Abram Harris on "Future Plans and Programs of the NAACP" which called for greater decentralization, more direct action, and class and labor alliances between African Americans and white workers. White weathered these criticisms of the traditional legal, political, and educational strategies of the organization, and after 1935 he focused much of the organization's energies toward a long, hard-fought, but ultimately fruitless campaign to pass a national anti-lynching bill.

Yet, as Ralph Bunche observed, White showed increased responsiveness to the economic problems facing African Americans. He supported the establishment of the Joint Committee on National Recovery, an umbrella organization of several civil rights organizations monitoring the impact of New Deal programs on African American life. Although a confidant of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and sympathetic to the social vision of the New Deal, he criticized National Recovery Administration (NRA) and Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) policies and called for a congressional investigation of racial discrimination in government programs. In 1938 he urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to extend social security benefits to agricultural and domestic workers and to amend the National Labor Relations Act to prohibit union discrimination. He opposed the creation of a segregated African American division in the United States Army and endorsed A. Phillip Randolph's March on Washington Movement in 1940 and 1941.

Critics charged that White was too close to the New Deal, that he failed to build a mass base for his organization, and that his autocratic style led him to view other African American organizations and leaders as rivals rather than as potential allies. But it is clear that White was devoted to bringing African Americans into the mainstream of American life and that he shared the liberal, reformist aspirations of his age. When he died, ten months after the historic Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision (1954), he had lived long enough to see the legal basis of that exclusion overturned. He was a consistent and articulate spokesman in the cause of human rights.

Further Reading

A Man Called White: The Autobiography of Walter White (1948) is the best introduction to the NAACP leader's career. Brief biographical sketches also appear in the Dictionary of American Negro Biography (1983) edited by Rayford Logan and Michael Winston and in A Biographical History of Blacks in America Since 1528 by Edgar A. Toppin (1969). White himself was the author of Fire in the Flint (1924); Flight (1926); Rope and Faggot: The Biography of Judge Lynch (1929); A Rising Wind: A Report of Negro Soldiers in the European Theatre of War (1945); and How Far Is the Promised Land (1955).

Additional Sources

Waldron, Edward E., Walter White and the Harlem Renaissance, Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1978.

White, Walter Francis, A man called White: the autobiography of Walter White, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1995. □

White, Walter Francis

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White, Walter Francis 1893–1955

Walter Francis White, born on July 1, 1893, in Atlanta, Georgia, was at the critical age of sixteen when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909. He was positioned to play a vital role in its future. He grew up in a middle-class family; his father, George, a postman, and his mother, Madeline, a school teacher, were both so light in complexion they could pass for white. Walter himself had blue eyes and blond hair, which sometimes belied his African-American ancestry.

His family complexion offered him little comfort: It was considered “too light” by blacks and “suspiciously too dark” by whites. The family often walked rather than ride in public transportation—if they rode in the black conveyances, blacks would mistake them for white, and vice versa. But there was one major advantage for a political activist: White was the perfect person to infiltrate and investigate the atrocities of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

Walter White learned about the violence of racism at an early age. At thirteen, he found himself standing in front of his home with his father, with guns cocked trying to protect their property from a white mob intent on burning all the homes in black neighborhoods. This was the Atlanta race riot of 1906.

With no high schools for blacks in Atlanta at the time, Walter attended the private high school established within the campus of Atlanta University. When he graduated from Atlanta University in 1916, his first job out of college was selling life insurance for Standard Life, a major African-American company in Atlanta. He organized the first chapter of the NAACP in Atlanta and used its leverage to force the city of Atlanta to improve public facilities for African Americans. Because of the effectiveness of his efforts in Atlanta, James Weldon Johnson, the first African-American general secretary of the NAACP and author of the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” secured a position for White as assistant to the organization’s chief administrative officer in 1918.

White came to the NAACP with some knowledge and experience of the social situation of blacks in the Deep South. In 1919 White was sent to investigate what was known as the Elaine race riot in Phillips County, Arkansas. White published his undercover findings about the riot in the Daily News, the Chicago Defender, the Nation, and the NAACP’s Crisis magazine. He went on to investigate more than forty-one lynchings, eight race riots, and dozens of KKK cross burnings, posing as a white reporter who wanted to give the South’s side of the story. At one point he was even invited to join the Ku Klux Klan. One southern sheriff gave him a badge and a gun and took him along on hunts for blacks. As the NAACP executive secretary, White tried relentlessly—and unsuccessfully—to persuade congressmen to pass an anti-lynching law. Anti-lynching laws that were proposed in the House of Representatives were reported out of committee, passed by the full House, and ultimately defeated via filibusters in the Senate. Southern senators, in particular, argued that anti-lynching laws violated state’s rights.

In Helena, Arkansas, while White was on his way to interview Negroes jailed for joining a sharecroppers’ union, he learned that a mob planned to ambush and lynch him. The white conductor of the northbound train wondered why White (who was now desperate to get out of town) would leave and thus miss the execution of plans to lynch a Negro passing through town. This episode formed the basis for his book Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch, published in 1929. In 1926 White had published The Fire in the Flint and Flight, and later he wrote What Caused the Detroit Riot? (1943), A Rising Wind (1945), an autobiography, A Man Called White (1948), Civil Rights: Fifty Years of Fighting (1950), and How Far the Promised Land? (1955).

In addition to pushing for anti-lynching measures and writing books, White was involved in various initiatives throughout his tenure as head of the NAACP. He met many of the influential writers of the Harlem Renaissance and assisted in breaking down barriers for them. White also worked tirelessly to bring about civil rights legislation. When President Herbert Hoover nominated John P. Parker, who had publicly renounced voting rights for blacks, to the Supreme Court, White testified before the Senate Judicial Committee and launched a letter-writing campaign against his nomination. Parker’s nomination was defeated in the Senate; Hoover, however, refused to remove Parker from consideration and consequently alienated many blacks. His action contributed to the Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt’s winning the nomination for president in 1932. White developed a strategy to attack racial discrimination at its roots when he started to fight for blacks’ right to vote and to be admitted to professional and graduate schools in state universities, and for equal pay for black teachers in public schools.

White urged President Roosevelt to extend Social Security benefits to agricultural and domestic workers and to amend the National Labor Relations Act to prohibit union discrimination. He supported A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington campaign in 1940 and 1941. He took on racial stereotypes in the entertainment industry and helped to quell race riots in Detroit and Harlem. In the last ten years of his life, White witnessed the outlawing of restrictive covenants in real estate deeds—for which the NAACP had fought for more than thirty years—and the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which desegregated public schools on May 17, 1954.

His accomplishments notwithstanding, White was not without his critics. He clashed with W. E. B. Du Bois because, like other leading black intellectuals, some of whom were critical of the NAACP, he opposed his notion of “black economic self-determination,” believing it was contrary to the integrationist aims of the NAACP. Other critics argued that White was too close to FDR’s New Deal and was not able to parlay his support for FDR’s initiatives into tangible gains for the NAACP. There were also those who believed White’s autocratic leadership style caused him not to recognize other organizations and leaders as potential allies. However, White’s body of work shows a man dedicated and committed to bringing all blacks fully into the mainstream of American life. Where his efforts failed, it was not because of lack of commitment to his causes but because the obstacles were insurmountable at the time. Congress never had any intention to pass a federal law against lynching, for example, despite the moral clarity of White’s position.

White was the recipient of several awards and honors throughout his long tenure at the NAACP, including a Guggenheim Fellowship early in his career and the 1937 Spingarn Medal. And because of his indefatigable work against lynching, Time magazine named him its “man of the year” in 1938. White died of a heart attack on March 21, 1955, in New York at the age of sixty-two.



Black, Allida M. 1996. Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cortner, Richard C. 1988. A Mob Intent on Death: The NAACP and the Arkansas Riot Cases. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Fleming, Robert. 2007. “A Heinous Act: Lynching Is America’s Dirty Secret of Racial Injustice and Hatred.” Black Issues 9 (1).

Waldron, Edward E. 1978. Walter White and the Harlem Renaissance. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press.

White, Walter Francis. [1948] 1995. A Man Called White: The Autobiography of Walter White. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Russell Mootry Jr.

White, Walter Francis

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White, Walter Francis (1893–1955) US civil rights leader. As an officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he campaigned for desegregation, voting rights, and prevention of lynching. He also wrote several books in the cause of justice for blacks, including his autobiography A Man Called White (1948).