Walter White served the cause of African Americans as assistant and executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for nearly 40 years. He came to be the most devoted fighter in the effort to stamp out lynching in the United States after World War I.
Walter Francis Walter was born on July 1, 1893, in Atlanta, Georgia to George W. White, a mail carrier, and Madeline Harrison, a school teacher. Five thirty-seconds of his ancestry was African American. Walter was blond, blue-eyed, and of light complexion and could have passed for white. He chose, with the rest of his family, to identify with his black ancestry. He attended the preparatory school of Atlanta University, which had been founded in 1867 for the education of blacks, and went on to graduate from the university in 1916. He worked as a clerk, then as a cashier, for the Standard Life Insurance Company. His first activist involvement was in a protest move against the Atlanta Board of Education, which had planned to eliminate the seventh grade from black schools in order to free funds for a new white high school. The protest succeeded.
In December 1916, White was a leader in the founding of a local branch of the young NAACP and was elected its secretary. When the writer James Weldon Johnson, the national secretary of the NAACP, visited and learned of White’s activities, he hired him as his assistant secretary in the New York office. Upon Johnson’s retirement in 1931, White was promoted to national executive secretary, a post he held until the end of his life.
During the 1920s, White focused his attention on lynching and personally investigated 41 lynchings and 8 race riots. In Southern towns, pretending to be a white reporter for a Northern newspaper, he circulated freely, interviewing white people about racial tensions. After a violent lynching and riot in an Arkansas town, White, in his reporter pose, interviewed imprisoned black men, lynchers, and even the state governor; he managed to escape on a train just ahead of a white crowd who had discovered his identity. He wrote a novel about lynching, The Fire in the Flint (1924), and another about passing as white, Flight (1926). In 1929, he published a study of lynching, Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch, written on a Guggenheim Fellowship.
White led the NAACP’s campaign to get antilynching legislation through the Congress. Two bills passed the House of Representatives in 1934 and 1937, but both failed in the Senate. For his work lobbying Congress and bringing racial violence to public notice, White was awarded the Spingarn Medal in 1937.
The NAACP legal department, under White’s direction, began a long campaign in the courts to have state-enforced segregation declared illegal. (The legal strategy, plotted by Thurgood Marshall— later a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court—led to the Supreme Court’s decision in 1954 that overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine.) In 1941, White joined A. Philip Randolph in persuading President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue an executive order banning discrimination in defense plants and setting up the Fair Employment Practices Commission. During World War II, White toured every war theater as a New York Post correspondent, investigating discrimination against African American service men and women. His book A Rising Wind (1945) reported his findings and strengthened the case for President Harry Truman’s executive order desegregating the armed forces in 1948.
When the Daughters of the American Revolution refused the singer Marian Anderson permission to sing in Constitution Hall in 1939, White joined Eleanor Roosevelt in arranging for the concert to take place at the Lincoln Memorial before 75,000 people. He rendered a different kind of service in August 1943, at the height of a violent race riot in Harlem, when he toured the streets all night with Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, calming the excited crowds.
White was an adviser to the U.S. delegation at the San Francisco conference to found the United Nations in 1945. Later, he traveled worldwide, lecturing on race relations, and developed a special interest in India and the West Indies. He wrote two weekly newspaper columns, one for the black Chicago Defender and another for a syndicate of white papers.
White’s activities outside the NAACP and his autocratic manner of administering his staff caused him difficulties. He was criticized by W.E.B. Du Bois, one-time editor of the NAACP journal Crisis, who charged that White’s involvements compromised NAACP policy. When Du Bois was abruptly discharged from his professorship at Atlanta University in 1944, however, White used his influence to have him reinstated. In the postwar years, the NAACP came under criticism from more radical African American activists for being too conservative, averse to direct action, even timid. Such criticism reflected on White’s leadership.
White married Leah Powell, an NAACP employee, in 1922, and they had two children. After a divorce, in 1949, White married the writer Poppy Cannon, who was white. White died suddenly of a heart attack on March 21, 1955, having served as NAACP secretary until his death.
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