Home > Uncategorized > Walter F. White, early civil rights hero – posted 7/10/2022

Walter F. White, early civil rights hero – posted 7/10/2022

Before Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, there was Walter F. White. From 1931 to 1955, he was a leader of the NAACP. He made an enormous contribution to the cause of civil rights in America but he remains a virtual unknown. White deserves to be far better known.

A big part of the story of American history is filling in the gaps of the conventional story we have been bequeathed. A new biography, White Lies, by A. J. Baime, tries to correct the disappeared record. Walter White’s life was contemporaneous with the Jim Crow era.. White was born in 1893 and he lived until 1955. In his obituary, the New York Times wrote:

“Only five-thirty-seconds of his ancestry was Negro. His skin was fair, his hair blond, his eyes blue and his features Caucasian. He could easily have joined the 12,000 Negroes who pass the color line and disappear into the white majority every year in this country.”

But White always identified as black. His parents were born into slavery. As a teenager, he lived through the Atlanta race riot of 1906. White’s family home was almost torched by a racist mob. That experience left an indelible impression.

As a very young person, White took the initiative to start an NAACP chapter in Atlanta. He invited the legendary James Weldon Johnson, who wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and who was the national leader of the NAACP to come and speak in Atlanta. In that era, the NAACP was considered the most militant organization fighting for civil rights. Johnson was so impressed with White that he recruited him to move to New York City and work for the organization. White arrived in the city in February 1918.

At the same time White arrived in the city, the national NAACP was contending with an epidemic of lynchings, mostly in the South. In Estill Springs, Tennessee, a mob of 1500 people burned a black man, Jim McIlherron, at the stake. McIlherron was believed to have shot and killed two white men. The New York Times reported “hot irons were applied to his body for about ten minutes in an effort to get him to make a confession”. Before he was set on fire, members of the mob unsexed him.

The NAACP telegrammed President Woodrow Wilson and Tennessee’s governor, appealing for them to break the silence and denounce the terrible mob acts. A U.S. assistant attorney general responded that under the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, the federal government had no jurisdiction over matters of this kind. The Tennessee governor said he would only take action if requested by local officers, something that would never happen.

This was the heyday of lynchings and Ku Klux Klan resurgence. Racist crimes were not investigated and perpetrators were never punished. Those who lynched had no apprehension about adverse consequences.

White came up with an idea. Beginning with the McIlherron case, he decided to go South to investigate lynchings as an undercover investigator. Once back home, he would publish his findings. Because of his skin color, he could go to the scene of lynchings and do first hand investigations. He did not find it difficult to penetrate to the heart of these crimes as perpetrators were often willing to talk freely.

Following in the anti-lynching tradition of Ida B. Wells, White published expose after expose in a range of newspapers and magazines. Between 1918 and 1930, White made 41 undercover investigations, repeatedly placing himself in great danger.

On one occasion, he almost got himself lynched. After a racist massacre in Arkansas, word leaked that there was a black man posing as a white reporter. White hightailed it to a train to get out of the South. A mob was looking for him. Not realizing who he was, the train conductor told him he was “about to miss some fun”.

White asked the conductor “What’ll they do with him? The conductor replied “ When they get through with him, he won’t pass for white no more”.

White wrote a book about lynching disputing the false narrative that lynchings were a result of black men sexually assaulting white women. He found that blacks were getting lynched for being successful at business. It was part of a disenfranchisement effort rooted in white supremacy. Lynching was meant to keep black people down through intimidation. White wrote:

“..mobbism has inevitably degenerated to the point where an uncomfortably large percentage of American citizens can read in the newspaper of the slow roasting alive of a human being in Mississippi and turn, promptly with little thought, to the comic strip or sporting page. Thus has lynching become an almost integral part of our national folkways.”

His courage and advocacy were so remarkable that at the age of 36 White was catapulted into national leadership of the NAACP. He pushed hard on both President Roosevelt and Truman to support anti-lynching law. Initially in 1934, FDR would not support the law out of fear it would block the rest of his agenda. He was trying to hold together a coalition that included Southern Democrats. Finally in 1938, FDR supported the anti-lynching bill. Eleanor Roosevelt helped behind the scenes.

Although he was not ultimately successful in passing anti-lynching legislation (that just passed in 2020), White pushed FDR to issue an Executive Order in 1941 that outlawed discrimination in employment. It was the first time the federal government ever issued such an order.

In 1946, this was followed by an Executive Order issued by President Truman creating a President’s Commission on Civil Rights. White had access to the White House and he educated Truman about lynchings and other horrible acts like the blinding of Isaac Woodard. Truman was genuinely shocked and said, “My God! I had no idea it was as terrible as that!! We’ve got to do something”. White succeeded in raising the profile of civil rights as a national issue.

With help from Charles Houston, White also recruited a young Thurgood Marshall to join the NAACP legal staff. To say this move worked out is a giant understatement. In a series of blockbuster cases, Marshall deconstructed laws upholding segregation in education and voting rights. Marshall’s biographer Juan Williams has written that White “opened Marshall’s eyes to the idea of civil rights as theater and the power of using dramatic situations to the NAACP’s advantage”.

About himself, White wrote that he embodied the “enigma of a black man occupying a white body”. Although he was married, he had a long-standing secret affair with a white woman, Poppy Cannon. He divorced his wife and married her. Angry mail poured into the NAACP headquarters. At that time, interracial relationships were far from accepted. White’s reputation took a hit.

In considering why Walter White has been disappeared historically it would appear his affair contributed as did his skin color but any fair assessment must acknowledge his over three decades of outstanding advocacy. White wrote:

“I am one of the two in the color of my skin; I am the other in my spirit and my heart. It is only a love of both which binds the two together in me…I am white and I am black, and know that there is no difference. Each casts a shadow, and all the shadows are dark.”

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