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 on Walter Francis White
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 Biography 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.