Walter Francis WhiteAug 23rd, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Activism, Arts & Entertainment
1893-1955 Walter Francis White spent most of his highly accomplished career in the service of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and led the organization during a crucial period in American racial history to a position of undeniable political power and broad interracial support.
A New Middle Class
White was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1893, one of seven children. His father, George W. White, a postal worker, graduated from Atlanta University and his mother, Madeline, a teacher, graduated from Clark University. While both parents had been born slaves, the family was part of a new black middle class in the south, and attended Atlanta’s prestigious First Congregational Church. Like his mother, White had blond hair, blue eyes, and a light complexion, and could easily have “passed” for white. But a sense of belonging to the black race and culture was cemented by his experience, in 1906, of the violent Atlanta race riot. White attended Atlanta University, a traditionally black institution, for both his secondary and college-level studies, and graduated in 1916.
He began his professional life with a job at the Standard Life Insurance Company, one of the largest and most successful African American businesses of the era. Intent on a business career, he also started a financial and real estate investment company. During this period, White took an interest in civil rights. In 1916, he was one of the founders, and became the secretary, of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP. His organizational and leadership talents came to the attention of James Weldon Johnson, field secretary for the national organization, who recommended White to his board. In 1918, White relocated to New York City to begin work as NAACP assistant secretary.
Taking advantage of his physical appearance, White spent the first stage of his career with the national organization investigating racial violence, especially lynchings and riots, in the south. Assuming various white roles and characters, and aided by press credentials from several periodicals, he was able to infiltrate vigilante and racist groups, and learned firsthand the unconscionable actions taken by white racists against African Americans at that time. White published his findings in a number of leading journals, including the Nation, the New Republic, the Chicago Defender, and the New York Herald-Tribune, in addition to the NAACP magazine The Crisis. Among the more notorious events he investigated were the 1918 lynching of Mary Turner in Valdosta, Georgia, nine months pregnant at the time of her murder, and the Elaine, Arkansas, riots of 1919, which would later become the subject of a NAACP case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. In all, White explored 41 lynchings and eight riots for the NAACP.
A “New Negro”
White also became an accomplished author of longer form works, and played an important part in the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance, or “New Negro” cultural awakening of the 1920s. His social network was large, influential, and multi-racial, and included publisher Alfred A. Knopf among others. White ultimately wrote and published six books based on his experience and insights: the novels Fire in the Flint (1924) and Flight (1926) were among the first New Negro novels to be published, along with the non-fiction works Rope and Faggot (1929), a seminal study of lynching and American culture, A Rising Wind (1945), A Man Called White (1948), and How Far the Promised Land (1955). He also supported the work of other significant black writers and artists of the era, including Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, and Marian Anderson. In 1922, White married Gladys Powell, whom he met at the NAACP where she was a clerical worker. They would eventually have two children.
White succeeded outgoing secretary James Weldon Johnson in 1929, becoming the head of the NAACP. During his tenure as secretary, he focused the organization’s tactics on direct political, legislative, and legal action, supported by successful efforts to enlist the support of white liberals, with enduring impact on the strategies and techniques of the overall civil rights movement. Significant achievements under his direction included a successful lobbying campaign in 1930 to defeat the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of an avowed opponent of black suffrage, and political campaigns against senators who voted to confirm. During the 1930s, White succeeded in enlisting the support of a majority of the House and Senate for federal anti-lynching legislation, ultimately defeated by a filibuster by southern senators. A growing friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was evidence of White’s stature among Washington’s political elite. In 1946, he persuaded President Truman to create a presidential civil rights commission, which released its seminal report, To Secure These Rights, the following year. Also in 1947, White convinced Truman to speak at the NAACP’s annual meeting, the first time a president had addressed the organization. White also supervised the NAACP’s early legal strategies, which eventually came under the direction of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
White and his wife divorced in 1948. The following year, he married a white magazine editor, Poppy Cannon, an event that generated substantial controversy within the NAACP and for many African Americans. White, an integrationist, defended his action as a matter of personal choice, and was supported during the ensuing political turmoil by NAACP board member Eleanor Roosevelt. While he survived with his position intact, staff member Roy Wilkins assumed most of his administrative duties, leaving White to focus on his strengths as spokesperson for the organization for the balance of his career.
After several years of worsening health, White died of a heart attack in New York in 1955. He was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2009, and honored that year with a U.S. Postal Service stamp as part of the Civil Rights Pioneers series. He is remembered for his essential role in the development of the NAACP, enlisting broad support from both white and black Americans, and creating the legal and political tools needed for effective action.