Walter White (1893-1955)
Walter White was one of the most important civil rights leaders of the first half of the twentieth century. As executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), White spearheaded a national effort to achieve political, economic and social rights for African Americans.
White, whose blond, blue-eyed looks belied his African American ancestry, was born in Atlanta, Georgia. Following graduation from Atlanta University in 1916, he worked for an insurance company. His civil rights career began when he organized a protest against the Atlanta Board of Education's plan to drop seventh grade for black students in order to finance the building of a new white high school. After founding the Atlanta branch of the NAACP, he moved on to become assistant secretary for the organization's national staff in 1918. By 1931, he had become executive secretary, the highest position in the organization. During this period, White also wrote several books, including two novels, The Fire in the Flint (1924) and Flight (1926), as well as a study of the factors behind lynching, Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch (1929).
As leader of the NAACP, White led the fight for antilynching legislation – a cause he was intimately familiar with, having investigated more than forty such deaths. During his tenure, the NAACP also launched major legal campaigns to end white primaries, poll taxes and segregated housing and education.
With A. Philip Randolph, he persuaded Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue an executive order in 1941 prohibiting racial discrimination in defense industries and establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission. His work as a foreign correspondent during World War II resulted in another book, A Rising Wind, (1945) which exposed the discrimination black soldiers faced and influenced President Harry Truman's 1948 order desegregating the armed forces. That same year he also persuaded Truman to appoint a presidential committee on civil rights. The committee's report became the basis of the Democratic party's platform plank on civil rights in 1948.
Although White primarily focused on improving conditions for African Americans, he recognized the international implications of the race issue and devoted time and effort to them. He was a delegate to the Second Pan-African Congress in 1921 and a member of the Advisory Council for the Government of the Virgin Islands in 1934-35. He was also an advisor to the United States delegation to the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945 and to the 1948 General Assembly session in Paris.
White remained executive secretary of the NAACP until his death despite periodic internal threats to his leadership. He survived these, but with his power somewhat curtailed by the time of his death in 1955, much of the financial management and supervision of the office had passed to his assistant secretary, Roy Wilkins.
White's relationship with ER dated from the 1930s when the two had collaborated (unsuccessfully) on efforts to obtain passage of federal antilynching legislation. She continued to back him and the NAACP's efforts despite opposition from some in FDR's circle and White's own disappointment in the Roosevelt administration's failure to do more to improve conditions for African Americans. The two became even closer after ER joined the NAACP board in 1945. Although they sometimes disagreed on specific strategies, their essential purpose remained the same, and ER consistently supported White and the NAACP through the 1950s, becoming one of the group's most influential members. For his part, White often postponed action on a matter until he had a chance to talk to ER, and he considered her support crucial to the success of any major NAACP initiative. White and ER were close friends, and he became one of the few associates to call ER "Eleanor." ER remained devoted to White, even when his marriage to the white Poppy Cannon inflamed many of his allies and critic, and she defended their marriage in private and in public.
Black, Allida M., Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, 85-116.
Cook, Blanche Wiesen, Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume Two, 1933-1938. New York: Viking Press, 1999, 4, 176-181, 279-280.
Concise Dictionary of American Biography. 5th ed.. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1980, 1424.
The Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 1. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1964, 740-741.