Walter Francis White
|Walter Francis White|
July 1, 1893|
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
|Died||March 21, 1955
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Known for||Civil rights activist|
|Parents||George W. White
Walter Francis White (July 1, 1893 – March 21, 1955) was an American civil rights activist who led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for almost a quarter of a century and directed a broad program of legal challenges to segregation and disfranchisement. He was also a journalist, novelist, and essayist. He graduated in 1916 from Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), a historically black college.
In 1918 he joined the small national staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in New York at the invitation of James Weldon Johnson. He acted as Johnson's assistant national secretary and traveled to the South to investigate. White later succeeded Johnson as the head of the NAACP, leading the organization from 1931 to 1955.
White oversaw the plans and organizational structure of the fight against public segregation. He worked with President Truman on desegregating the armed forces after the Second World War and gave him a draft for the Executive Order to implement this. Under White's leadership, the NAACP set up the Legal Defense Fund, which raised numerous legal challenges to segregation and disfranchisement, and achieved many successes. Among these was the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which determined that segregated education was inherently unequal. White also quintupled NAACP membership to nearly 500,000.
Early life and education
White was the fourth of seven children born in Atlanta to George W. White and Madeline Harrison. They belonged to the influential First Congregational Church, founded after the Civil War by freedmen and the American Missionary Association, based in the North. Of all the denominations in Georgia, the Congregationalists were among the most socially, politically and financially powerful. Membership to First Congregational was the ultimate status symbol in Atlanta. Among the new middle class of blacks, both of the Whites ensured that Walter and each of their children got an education. When White was born, George had graduated from Atlanta University and was a postal worker, an admired position in the federal government. Madeline had graduated from Clark University and became a teacher.
Of mixed race with African and European ancestry on both sides, White's appearance showed his high proportion of European ancestry. He emphasized in his autobiography, A Man Called White (p. 3): "I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me." Five of his great-great-great-grandparents were black and the other 27 were white. All in his family were light-skinned, and his mother Madeline was also blue-eyed and blonde. It has been suggested that her maternal grandparents were Dilsia, a concubine and slave, and Dilsia's master William Henry Harrison, who much later became president of the United States. Madeline's mother Marie Harrison was one of Dilsia's mixed-race daughters by Harrison, and her father Augustus Ware was a white man. White and his family identified as Negro and lived among the Atlanta Negro community. George and Madeline took a kind but firm approach in rearing their children, encouraging hard work and regular schedules. In his autobiography, Walter relates that his parents ran a strict schedule on Sundays; they locked him in his room for silent prayer, a time so boring that he all but begged to do homework. His father forbade Walter from reading any books less than 25 years old, so he chose to read Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope by the time he was 12. When he was 8, he threw a rock at a white child who called him a derogatory name for drinking from the fountain reserved for Blacks. Events such as this shaped Walter's self-identity. He began to develop skills to pass for white, a device he used later to preserve his safety as a civil rights investigator in the South.
White was educated at Atlanta University, a historically black college. WEB Du Bois had already moved to the North before White enrolled, but Du Bois and Walter’s parents knew each other well. Du Bois had taught two of Walter’s older brothers at Atlanta University. Du Bois and Walter White later disagreed about how best to gain civil rights for blacks, but they shared a vision for the country. After graduating in 1916 from Atlanta University, White took a position with the Standard Life Insurance Company, one of the new and most successful businesses started by African Americans in Atlanta.
He also worked to organize a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Atlanta; the organization had been set up several years before and White was supportive of their work. He and other leaders were successful in getting the Atlanta School Board to support improving education for black children, who were kept in segregated schools that were traditionally underfunded by the white-dominated legislature.
At the invitation of James Weldon Johnson, a 25-year-old White moved to New York City, and in 1918 started working at the national headquarters of the NAACP. WEB Du Bois and other leaders of the NAACP eventually got over their concerns about his youth. Walter White took to the ranks of secretary assistant of the NAACP, eventually becoming an undercover agent in lynching investigations. With his keen investigative skills and light complexion, Walter White proved to be the NAACP's secret weapon against white mob violence. White passed as white as a NAACP investigator, finding both more safety in hostile environments, and gaining freer communication with whites in cases of violations of civil and human rights, such as lynchings and hate crimes. He became involved in KKK groups in the South in order to expose those involved in lynchings and other murders. On one occasion he escaped on a train after learning of threats that a black man "passing for white" was being hunted down to be lynched.
To become a popular leader, he needed to fend off the appeal of Marcus Garvey and display a skillful verbal dexterity. His successor at the NAACP, Roy Wilkins suggested "White was one of the best talkers I've ever heard."
Throughout his career, Walter White spoke out against segregation and discrimination while also suppressing manifestations of nationalism. Most notably, Walter White and WEB Du Bois' 1934 conflict was over the latter's endorsement of blacks' voluntary separation within United States society.
Marriage and family
White married Gladys Powell in 1922. They had two children, Jane White, who became an actress on Broadway and television; and Walter Carl Darrow White, who lived in Germany for much of his adult life.
The Whites' long marriage ended in divorce in 1949.
White generated public controversy by his marriage to Poppy Cannon, a white South African magazine editor. Many of his black colleagues and acquaintances were offended. Some said he had always wanted to be white; others said he had always been white.
His ex-wife and children broke off with the couple. White's sister said that he wanted all along simply to pass as a white citizen. His son changed his name from Walter White Jr. to Carl Darrow, signifying his disgust and desire to separate himself from his father.
After the brouhaha, Walter White published an article in Look Magazine entitled "Has science conquered the color line?" It described a new scientific breakthrough that allowed for skin lightening, with the suggestion that such changes would eliminate the color line. By describing "Whiteness as a solution for something to be aspired to, he profoundly insulted the people he had given his life to and all but destroyed his own enormous legacy."  He later defended the article by saying that he had intended it satirically. He wanted individual character to matter more than skin color, and wanted people of all skin tones "to realize the full range of possibilities within themselves and not just exercise the easy politics of race."
Investigating riots and lynchings
White used his appearance to increase his effectiveness in conducting investigations of lynchings and race riots in the American South. He could "pass" and talk to whites, but also identified as black and could talk to members of the African-American community. Such work was dangerous. “Through 1927 White would investigate 41 lynchings, 8 race riots, and two cases of widespread peonage, risking his life repeatedly in the backwaters of Florida, the piney woods of Georgia, and in the cotton fields of Arkansas.”
In his autobiography, A Man Called White, he dedicates an entire chapter to a time when he almost joined the Ku Klux Klan undercover. White became a master of incognito investigating. He started with a letter from a friend that recruited new members of the KKK. After back and forth correspondence between him and Edward Young Clark, leader of the Ku Klux Klan, it became apparent Clark was interested in White joining. White was eventually invited to Atlanta, Georgia to meet with other Klan leaders, but politely declined for fear if his true identity were found out, he would be killed. White used this access to Klan leaders to further his investigation into the "sinister and illegal conspiracy against human and civil rights which the Klan was concocting." After deeper inquiries into White's life, Edward Young Clark stopped sending signed letters; instead White was threatened by anonymous letters stating his life would be in danger if he ever divulged any of the confidential information. By this time however, White had already turned the information into the Department of Justice and New York Police Department. White understood undermining the strong hold of mob violence would be crucial to progressing his cause.
One of the first riots he investigated was that of October 1919 in Elaine, Arkansas, where white vigilantes and Federal troops in Phillips County killed more than 200 black sharecroppers. The case had both labor and racial issues. The white militias had come to the town and hunted down blacks in retaliation for the killing of a white man. He was killed in a shootout at a church where black sharecroppers were meeting on issues related to organizing with an agrarian union.
White was granted credentials from the Chicago Daily News. That enabled him to obtain an interview with Governor Charles Hillman Brough of Arkansas, who would not have met with him as the representative of the NAACP. Brough gave White a letter of recommendation to help him meet people, and his autographed photograph.
White was in Phillips County for only a brief time before his identity was discovered; he took the first train back to Little Rock. The conductor told him that he was leaving "just when the fun is going to start", because they had found out that there was a "damned yellow nigger down here passing for white and the boys are going to get him." Asked what they would do to him, the conductor told White, "When they get through with him he won't pass for white no more!" "High yellow" was a term used at the time to refer to white-appearing blacks, mostly those of mixed-racial descent.
White published his findings about the riot and trial in the Daily News, the Chicago Defender and The Nation, as well as the NAACP's own magazine The Crisis. Governor Brough asked the United States Postal Service to prohibit the mailing of the Chicago Defender and The Crisis to Arkansas, while others attempted to enjoin distribution of the Defender at the local level.
The NAACP put together a legal defense of the men convicted and carried the case to the Supreme Court. Its ruling overturned the Elaine convictions and established important precedent about the conduct of trials. The Supreme Court found that the original trial was held under conditions that adversely affected the defendants' rights. Some of the courtroom audience were armed, as were a mob outside, so there was intimidation of the court and jury. The 79 black defendants had been quickly tried: 12 were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death; 67 were condemned to sentences from 20 years to life. No white man was prosecuted for the many black deaths.
Walter White’s first major struggle as leader of the NAACP centered on the Scottsboro Trial and the NAACP battle against communism. The Scottsboro trial was a high profile case that the NAACP and Walter White could use to increase their following. Weeks after White secured his new position, nine black teenagers looking for work were arrested after a fight with a group of white teens as the train both were riding on passed through Scottsboro, Alabama. Two white girls were also found who accused the nine black teenagers of rape. Locked in a cell awaiting trial, the "Scottsboro boys looked to be prime lynching material: dirt poor, illiterate, and of highly questionable moral character even for teenagers."  Because the Communist party and the NAACP had long been battling for the black community's support and leadership over the black population, Scottsboro was an important battle ground for these two groups. The Communist party had to devastate black citizens' faith in the NAACP to assume sole control of leadership, and they saw a Scottsboro victory as a way to solidify this superior role over the NAACP. Their case against the NAACP was easier when Walter White and other leaders were second in approaching the case after the International Labor Defense. Ultimately, the case was a synopsis of conflicting ideals between the two organizations. To White, “Communism meant that blacks have two strikes against them: blacks were aliens in white society where skin color was more important than initiative or intelligence, and blacks would also be Reds which meant a double dose of hatred from white Americans”. White believed the NAACP could not in any way be associated with the Communist Party for this reason. Ultimately the Communist leaders failed in solidifying their position. White stated, "The shortsightedness of the Communist leaders in the United States (led to their eventual failure); Had they been more intelligent, honest, and truthful there is no way of estimating how deeply they might have penetrated into Negro life and consciousness. White meant the Communist's philosophy of branding anyone opposed to their platform was their failure. He believed the NAACP had the best defense council in the country, yet the Scottsboro boy's families chose to go with the ILD partly because they were first on the scene. White believed in capitalistic America and used the Communist propaganda as leverage to promote his own cause in securing civil liberties. He advised white America to reconsider their position of unfair treatmtent because they might find the black population choosing radical alternative methods of protest. Ultimately, White and other NAACP leaders decided to continue involvement with the Scottsboro boys since this was only one of many efforts they had. In his autobiography, Walter White gave a critical summary of the injustice in Scottsboro, "In the intervening years it had become increasingly clear that the tragedy of a Scottsboro lies, not in the bitterly cruel injustice which it works upon its immediate victims, but also, and perhaps even more, in the cynical use of human misery by Communists in propagandizing Communism, and in the complacency with which a democratic government views the basic evils from which such a case arises. A majority of Americans still ignore, the plain implications in similar tragedies." 
Walter White was also a strong proponent and supporter of anti-lynching bills. Because of his first hand experience he was well versed in the motivation of Southern Whites to complete such heinous acts. One of White’s many surveys showed 46 of 50 lynchings during the first six months of 1919 were black victims, 10 of whom were burned at the stake. After the great 1919 Chicago riot, White concluded the causes of such violence were not rape, as had been rumored, but rather the result of "prejudice and economic competition."  This was also the conclusion of a city commission that investigated the riots; it noted that ethnic Irish had led the anti-black attacks.
Newspapers reported a decreasing number of southern lynchings in the late 1910s, but postwar violence in Northern and Midwestern cities increased under the competition of returning veterans, immigrants and African Americans for work and housing. Walter White investigated one particularly horrific example of the sadistic events in 1918. He found evidence that in Lowndes and Brooks counties, Georgia, "The killings (of many black citizens) ended with a pregnant black woman being tied to a tree and burned alive after which (the mob) split her open, and her child, still alive, was thrown to the ground and stomped by some of the members”.
White lobbied for federal anti-lynching bills during his time as leader of the NAACP. In 1922, the Dyer anti-lynching bill was passed by the House, the “first piece of legislation passed by the House of Representatives since Reconstruction that specifically protected blacks from lynchings”. Congress never passed the Dyer bill, as the Senate was controlled by Southerners who opposed the bill. White sponsored other civil rights legislation, also defeated by the Southern bloc: the Castigan-Wagner bill of 1935, the Gavagan bill of 1937, and the VanNuys bill of 1940. It did, however, take a monumental effort on Southerners' part both financially and politically to take the Castigan-Wagner bill out of consideration and to defeat the Gavagan bill. White had become a powerful figure, and James F Byrnes of South Carolina stood on the Senate floor and said, “One Negro has ordered this bill to pass. If Walter White should consent to have this bill laid aside its advocates would desert it as quickly as football players unscramble when the whistle of the referee is heard." White's word was the only thing that kept the bill before Congress. It would be easy to conclude White and the NAACP failed in their attempts to secure anti-lynching legislation, but they were able to secure the all-important public support for their cause. By 1938, a Gallup poll found that 72% of Americans and 57% of Southerners favored an anti-lynching bill. Because of his strong push for antilynching legislation, White had created a strong alliance of groups that believed in the same basic ideals of civil liberty which in turn formed the basis of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Attacks on Paul Robeson
During the McCarthy era, White did not openly criticize McCarthy’s campaign in Congress against communists, which was wide-ranging. During this era, American fears of communism were heightened and the FBI had been trying to classify civil rights activists as communists. White feared a backlash on this issue might cost the NAACP its tax-exempt status and lead to equating civil rights with Soviet Communism. He criticized singer/activist Paul Robeson, who was accused of pro-Soviet leanings. Together with Roy Wilkins, then editor of The Crisis, he arranged for distribution of Paul Robeson: Lost Shepherd, a leaflet discounting Robeson that was written under a pseudonym.
Through his cultural interests and his close friendships with white literary power brokers Carl Van Vechten and Alfred A. Knopf, White was one of the founders of the "New Negro" cultural flowering. Popularly known as the "Harlem Renaissance", the period was one of intense literary and artistic production. Harlem became the center of black American intellectual and artistic life. It attracted creative people from across the nation, as did New York City in general.
Writer Zora Neale Hurston accused Walter White of stealing her designed costumes from her play The Great Day. White never returned the costumes to Hurston although she repeatedly asked for them by mail.
White was the author of critically acclaimed novels: Fire in the Flint (1924) and Flight (1926). His non-fiction book Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch (1929) was a study of lynching. Additional books were A Rising Wind (1945), his autobiography A Man Called White (1948), and How Far the Promised Land (1955). Unfinished at his death was Blackjack, a novel on Harlem life and the career of an African-American boxer.
Awards and honors
- 1927 – White received the Harmon Award (William E. Harmon Foundation Award for Distinguished Achievement among Negroes) for his book Rope and Faggot: An Interview with Judge Lynch, a study of lynching.
- 1937 – Awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP, for outstanding achievement by an African American.
- 2002 – Molefi Kete Asante listed Walter Francis White on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
- 2009 – White was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
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- Mark Newman, "Civil Rights and Human Rights", review of Carol Andersen's Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944–1955, accessed 12 Apr 2008
- Duberman, Martin. Paul Robeson, 1989, p. 396.
- "Why you feel that I am not due any answer about my costumes?"
- Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (p. 202).
- Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
- "Writers hall picks four inductees". Online Athens (Athens Banner Herald). September 19, 2009. Retrieved 20 September 2009.
- Cortner, Richard, A Mob Intent On Death, ISBN 0-8195-5161-9.
- Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice, ISBN 0-394-72255-8.
- "Walter Francis White", African American World, PBS.