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Walter Francis White

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Walter Francis White

Walter Francis White
Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
In office
Preceded by James Weldon Johnson
Succeeded by Roy Wilkins
Personal details
Born (1893-07-01)July 1, 1893
Died March 21, 1955(1955-03-21) (aged 61)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality American
Parents George W. White
Madeline Harrison
Alma mater Atlanta University
Known for Civil rights activist

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.[1]


  • Early life and education 1
  • Career 2
  • Marriage and family 3
  • NAACP 4
    • Investigating riots and lynchings 4.1
    • Scottsboro Trial 4.2
    • Anti-Lynching legislation 4.3
  • Attacks on Paul Robeson 5
  • Literary career 6
  • Awards and honors 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11

Early life and education

White was the fourth of seven children born in Atlanta to George W. White (b.1857) and Madeline (Harrison) White (b.1863). Among the new middle class of blacks, George and Madeline, both born into slavery, ensured that Walter and each of their children got an education. When Walter was born, George had attended

  • "Walter Francis White", African American World, PBS.

External links

  • Cortner, Richard, A Mob Intent On Death, ISBN 0-8195-5161-9.
  • Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice, ISBN 0-394-72255-8.

Further reading

  1. ^ William Jelani Cobb, "Past Imperfect: Post Mfume",
  2. ^ Dyja, Tom. Walter White: The Dilemma of Black Identity in America, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008. Print. P 12
  3. ^ a b Kenneth Robert Janken, Walter White: Mr. NAACP, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006, pp.2-4.
  4. ^ a b Dyja, Tom. Walter White: The Dilemma of Black Identity in America. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008. Print. P 12
  5. ^ A Man Called WhiteWalter White,
  6. ^ Dyja (2008), Walter White, p. 121
  7. ^ a b c Dyja (2008), Walter White, p. 18
  8. ^ a b Dyja, Tom. Walter White: The Dilemma of Black Identity in America. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008. Print. P 15
  9. ^ Kenneth Robert Janken, Walter White: Mr. NAACP, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006, p.57
  10. ^ Dyja (2008) Walter White, P 61
  11. ^ Janken (2006), Mr. NAACP", p.XIV
  12. ^ In Search of Nella Larsen: a Biography of the Color LineGeorge Hutchinson, , Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006, p. 253.
  13. ^ a b c Dyja, (2008), Walter White, P 181
  14. ^ Dyja (2008), Walter White, P.48
  15. ^ a b c d Walter White. A Man Called White. P.54
  16. ^ a b Walter White. A Man Called White. P.55
  17. ^ a b ; see also Time magazine
  18. ^ , Reprint, 1995, p.49A Man Called WhiteWalter White, , accessed 12 Apr 2008
  19. ^ a b Dyja, Tom. Walter White: The Dilemma of Black Identity in America. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008. Print. P 121
  20. ^ a b Pratt, Charles A., Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. MA thesis. Western Michigan University. 1971. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1971. Print P. 6
  21. ^ Pratt (1971), Walter White p. 9
  22. ^ Pratt (1971), Walter White p.14
  23. ^ a b Pratt (1971), Walter White P. 11
  24. ^ Pratt (1971), Walter White P.15
  25. ^ Pratt(1971) , Walter White P.17
  26. ^ Walter White. A Man Called White, P.33
  27. ^ Pratt (1971), Walter WhiteP.19
  28. ^ Pratt (1971), p.20
  29. ^ Pratt (1971), Walter White p. 22
  30. ^ a b c Pratt (1971), Walter White p. 30
  31. ^ a b Dyja, Tom. Walter White: The Dilemma of Black Identity in America. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008. P. 149
  32. ^ Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944–1955Mark Newman, "Civil Rights and Human Rights", review of Carol Andersen's , accessed 12 Apr 2008
  33. ^ Duberman, Martin. Paul Robeson, 1989, p. 396.
  34. ^ "Why you feel that I am not due any answer about my costumes?"
  35. ^ Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (p. 202).
  36. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  37. ^


See also

Awards and honors

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.

Writer Zora Neale Hurston accused Walter White of stealing her designed costumes from her play The Great Day.[34] White never returned the costumes to Hurston although she repeatedly asked for them by mail.[35]

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.

Literary career

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.[32] 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.[33]

Attacks on Paul Robeson

White had become a powerful figure. Segregationist senator James F Byrnes of South Carolina said in session about the Dyer bill, “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."[30] White's word was the only thing that kept the bill before Congress. Although the bill did not pass the Senate, White and the NAACP secured widespread public support for the cause. By 1938, a Gallup poll found that 72% of Americans and 57% of Southerners favored an anti-lynching bill.[31] White also contributed to creating alliances among civil rights activists, many of whom went on to lead in the movement beginning in the 1950s.[31]

White lobbied for federal anti-lynching bills during his time as leader of the NAACP. In 1922, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill was passed overwhelmingly by the House, the “first piece of legislation passed by the House of Representatives since Reconstruction that specifically protected blacks from lynchings”.[30] Congress never passed the Dyer bill, as the Senate was controlled by Southerners who opposed it. At this time, African Americans were still largely disfranchised in southern states, which were politically controlled by white Democrats. At the turn of the 20th century, the state legislatures had passed discriminatory laws and constitutions that effectively closed blacks out of the political process. White sponsored other civil rights legislation, which was also defeated by the Southern block: the Castigan-Wagner bill of 1935, the Gavagan bill of 1937, and the VanNuys bill of 1940. Southerners had to mount a major political and financial effort to take the Castigan-Wagner bill out of consideration and to defeat the Gavagan bill.[30]

Rural violence also continued. Walter White investigated violence in 1918 in [29]

In the late 1910s, newspapers reported a decreasing number of southern lynchings but postwar violence in Northern and Midwestern cities increased under the competition for work and housing by returning veterans, immigrants and African American migrants. In the Great Migration, hundreds of thousands of blacks were leaving the South for jobs in the North. The Pennsylvania Railroad recruited thousands of workers from Florida alone.

Walter White was a strong proponent and supporter of federal anti-lynching bills, which were unable to get past the Southern Democratic block in the Senate. One of White’s many surveys showed that 46 of 50 lynchings during the first six months of 1919 were black victims, 10 of whom were burned at the stake.[27] After the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, like Ida Tarbell, White concluded the causes of such violence were not rape of a white woman by a black man, as was often rumored, but rather the result of "prejudice and economic competition." [28] This was also the conclusion of a Chicago city commission that investigated the 1919 rioting; it noted specifically that ethnic Irish in South Chicago, who were considered highly political and strongly territorial against other groups, including more recent European immigrants, had led the anti-black attacks.

Anti-Lynching legislation

"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." [26]

White said, "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.[23] White meant the Communist's philosophy of branding anyone opposed to their platform was their failure. He believed the NAACP had the best defense counsel in the country, yet the Scottsboro boy's families chose to go with the ILD partly because they were first on the scene.[23] 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 treatment because they might find the black population choosing radical alternative methods of protest.[24] Ultimately, White and other NAACP leaders decided to continue involvement with the Scottsboro boys, since this was only one of many efforts they had.[25] In his autobiography, Walter White gave a critical summary of the injustice in Scottsboro,

White believed the NAACP had to keep distance and independence from the Communist Party for this reason. Ultimately the Communist leaders failed to solidify their position. [22] Their case against the NAACP was easier as Walter White and other leaders were second in approaching the case after the [20] The Communist party had to destroy black citizens' faith in the NAACP in order to take control of leadership, and they saw a Scottsboro victory as a way to solidify this superior role over the NAACP.[20] The Communist party and the NAACP both hoped to prove themselves as the party to represent the black community. Scottsboro was an important battle ground for these two groups.[19] 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."

White's first major struggle as leader of the NAACP centered on the Scottsboro Trial in 1931. It was also a case that tested the competition between the NAACP and the American Communist Party to represent the black community. The Scottsboro trial was a high-profile case that the NAACP and Walter White could use to increase their following. Weeks after White started in his new position at the NAACP, 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.[19] Two white girls accused the nine black teenagers of rape.

Scottsboro Trial

The NAACP provided legal defense of the black men convicted for the riot and carried the case to the United States 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 and convicted by an all-white jury: 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.[18]

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 mailings of the Chicago Defender and The Crisis to Arkansas, while others tried to enjoin distribution of the Defender at the local level.

Learning that his identity was discovered, White was in Phillips County briefly before taking 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."[17] 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!"[17] "High yellow" was a term used at the time to refer to blacks of mixed-racial descent and obvious European characteristics.

Granted press credentials from the Chicago Daily News, White gained an interview with Arkansas Governor Charles Hillman Brough, who would not have met with him as the NAACP representative. Brough gave White a letter of recommendation to help him meet people, and his autographed photograph.

He first investigated the October 1919 riot in militias had come to the town and hunted down blacks in retaliation for that death and to suppress the labor movement.

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.[15] After correspondence between him and Edward Young Clark, leader of the KKK, Clark clearly tried to interest White in joining.[15] Invited to Atlanta, to meet with other Klan leaders, White declined, fearing that he would be at risk of his life if his true identity were discovered.[15] 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."[15] After deeper inquiries into White's life, Clark stopped sending signed letters; White was threatened by anonymous letters stating his life would be in danger if he ever divulged any of the confidential information he had received.[16] By this time, White had already turned the information over to the US Department of Justice and New York Police Department.[16] He believed that undermining the hold of mob violence would be crucial to his cause.

[14] White used his appearance to increase his effectiveness in conducting investigations of

Investigating riots and lynchings


Gladys and their children broke off with White and his second wife. White's sister said that he wanted all along simply to pass as a white person.[13] His son changed his name from Walter White Jr. to Carl Darrow, signifying his disgust and desire to separate himself from his father.[13]

Because he was a public figure of a noted African-American rights organization, White generated great public controversy by his marriage shortly after to Poppy Cannon, a divorced white South African woman, who was a magazine editor with connections in the emerging television industry. Many of his black colleagues and acquaintances were offended. Some claimed the leader had always wanted to be white; others said he had always been white.[13]

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' 27-year marriage ended in divorce in 1949.[12]

Marriage and family

Throughout his career, Walter White spoke out against segregation and discrimination but he did not support black 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.[11]

To become a popular leader, White had to compete with the appeal of Marcus Garvey; he learned to display a skillful verbal dexterity. Roy Wilkins, his successor at the NAACP, said, "White was one of the best talkers I've ever heard."[10]

He also worked to organize a chapter of the James Weldon Johnson, 25-year-old White moved to New York City. In 1918 he started working at the national headquarters of the NAACP. W.E.B. Du Bois and other leaders of the NAACP got over their concerns about his youth. Walter White began as secretary assistant of the NAACP, and became an undercover agent in investigating lynchings in the South, which were at a peak. With his keen investigative skills and light complexion, Walter White proved to be the NAACP's secret weapon against white mob violence.[9] 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. He sometimes became involved in KKK groups in the South in order to expose those involved in lynchings and other murders. On one occasion in the Little Rock, Arkansas area he escaped on a train, after being harbored by several prominent Black families, after learning of threats that a black man "passing for white" was being hunted down to be lynched. The NAACP publicized information about these crimes, but virtually none was prosecuted by local or state southern governments.

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 White's parents knew each other well.[8] Du Bois had taught two of White's older brothers at Atlanta University.[8] 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.


George and Madeline took a kind but firm approach in rearing their children, encouraging hard work and regular schedules.[6] In his autobiography, White 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.[7] 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.[7] Events such as this shaped White'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 for the NAACP in the South.[7]

Of concubine to Augustus Ware. This wealthy white man bought her a house, had four children with her, and passed on some wealth to them.[3] White and his family identified as Negro and lived among Atlanta's Negro community.

[4] Membership to First Congregational was the ultimate status symbol in Atlanta.[4]

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