Walter White – Encyclopedia of New Georgia
A native of Atlanta, Walter White served as chief secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1929 to 1955. In the twenty-five years before the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education decision, White was one of the most prominent African-American figures and spokespersons in the country. When he died in 1955, the New York Times praised him as “the closest approach to a national leader of Black Americans since Booker T. Washington”.
White was the fourth of seven children born to Madeline Harrison and George White, a teacher and postman respectively. His family belonged to Atlanta’s black elite and attended the influential First Congregational Church. Although White is very light-skinned, he chooses to identify as African American. If he ever had any reservations about this choice, they were resolved during the 1906 Atlanta race riot, when a white mob threatened to attack his family home. According to his autobiography A man called white (1948), 13-year-old White determined that he could never belong to a race that carried such horrible hatred within it.
After graduating from Atlanta University in 1916, White became an official of the Standard Life Insurance Company, one of the largest black-owned businesses of its time. He also took part in civic affairs, helping to found the Atlanta branch of the NAACP that same year. With White as secretary, the branch quickly won a victory for educational equality by stopping the school board from eliminating the seventh grade in black public schools.
In 1917, James Weldon Johnson, field secretary of the NAACP, visited Atlanta. He was impressed with White’s enthusiasm and political skill and persuaded the national board to appoint him assistant secretary. In January 1918, White moved to New York and joined the staff of the NAACP.
For the next ten years, White’s primary responsibility was to conduct covert investigations into lynchings and race riots. Using his fair complexion to his advantage, White approached members of lynchings and other white people who had witnessed or been involved in racial violence. He tricked them into giving him candid accounts that the NAACP would then publish. During these years White investigated forty-one lynchings and eight race riots, including the riots in Elaine, Arkansas and Chicago, Illinois, during the Red Summer of 1919. On more than one occasion he escaped narrowly to the vigilantes who discovered his true identity. In the January 1929 issue of American Mercury, White published “I Investigate Lynchings”, an account of his investigative exploits. His book Rope and Fagot (1929) is still considered an authoritative analysis of the extent and causes of lynching.
White and the Harlem Renaissance
During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, White published two novels. Critically Acclaimed fire in the flint (1924) is based on White’s experiences investigating lynchings. It tells the story of Kenneth Harper, a black doctor in small town Georgia in the years following World War I (1917-18), who is murdered by white people as he develops racial consciousness. Flight (1926) is a novel about the great migration of blacks to the North. It follows light-skinned African American Mimi Daquin, originally from New Orleans and Atlanta, as she travels to Harlem, seeks her fortune by disappearing into white society, and returns once again to his race to seek spiritual fulfillment. more ambitious than fire in the flint but also more uneven, it received mixed reviews.
White was central in other ways to the flourishing of the Harlem Renaissance. He vigorously promoted the work of other artists, including poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, novelist Claude McKay, tenor Roland Hayes (a fellow Georgian), and singer and actor Paul Robeson. White carefully reviewed manuscripts, introduced writers to publishers, and brought stage and concert performers to the public’s attention. These literary contributions were recognized in 2010, when White was posthumously inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
Civil Rights Agenda Organizer
When James Weldon Johnson retired from the NAACP in 1929, White was elevated to secretary. In this capacity, he energetically led the association in its pursuit of full legal equality for African Americans. In 1930, he engineered the campaign that successfully blocked President Herbert Hoover’s nomination of John J. Parker to the Supreme Court of the United States. As a candidate for governor of North Carolina, Parker had publicly stated that he favored the continued disenfranchisement of African Americans, and he was known to be hostile to organized labor. The campaign produced enough popular opposition to Parker to defeat his Senate nomination. In the 1930 and 1932 elections, the NAACP followed up this victory by working to defeat Northern senators who had voted for Parker. Targeting senators from states with large black minorities, the NAACP’s efforts have met with considerable success. The Parker campaign and its aftermath marked the association’s emergence as a powerful force in national politics.
During the Franklin Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman administrations, White’s signature style of working for political gain by rallying enlightened elites achieved astonishing results. His close friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt gave him direct access to the White House. He orchestrated overwhelming support in Congress for anti-lynching legislation, which was defeated only by persistent Senate filibuster by southern Democrats. When popular contralto Marian Anderson, who was black, was denied the use of Constitution Hall, White was granted the Lincoln Memorial and assembled a sponsorship committee studded with New Deal officials for her 1939 Easter concert. years later, White played a leading role in A. Philip Randolph’s March on the Washington Movement, which pressured President Roosevelt to issue an executive order banning racial discrimination in the industries of defense. He secured President Truman’s promise to appoint a commission on civil rights, which in 1947 produced the landmark report To guarantee these rights.
During White’s tenure as secretary of the NAACP, the association launched a series of lawsuits seeking racial equality in education. This effort resulted in the Supreme Court ruling in 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared unconstitutional the doctrine of “separate but equal”.
During World War II (1941-1945), White traveled to European and Pacific theaters of war to investigate accusations of discrimination against black soldiers and to promote the idea that an Allied victory should lead to 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 United Nations conference in San Francisco and again in 1948 as a consultant to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations General Assembly meeting in Paris, France.
White soon faced a struggle in the NAACP due to her personal life. In 1922 he had married Leah Gladys Powell, a clerk at the association’s headquarters; they had two children, Jane and Walter. This marriage ended in divorce in 1949 and in the same year he married Poppy Cannon, a white woman born in South Africa. Within the NAACP, this interracial marriage prompted protests and calls for White’s resignation. But White, ever the integration advocate, shrugged off the criticism, saying choosing a mate was a private matter. Eleanor Roosevelt, who had joined the association’s board of directors after her husband’s death, saved White’s position by threatening to resign if White was fired. Although his declining health soon forced him to hand over many of his administrative duties to Roy Wilkins, he remained the NAACP’s executive secretary and most prominent public spokesperson until his death in 1955.
White’s importance lay in his organizational skills and leadership style. His ability to cultivate connections with influential people inside and outside government and to popularize and publicize the association and its program helped put civil rights on the national agenda.