White, Walter

White, Walter (Francis)

(1893–1955) civil rights leader, author; born in Atlanta, Ga. Fair-skinned, blond, and blue-eyed although part black, he could pass for white but chose to champion the cause of the black race after experiencing a race riot in Atlanta, Ga. (1906). (In 1926 he published his novel Flight, based on his experiences of "passing.") As an insurance company cashier, he took the lead in establishing a branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Atlanta (1916). He was named assistant secretary of the NAACP (1918–31) and NAACP executive secretary (1931–55). One of the most ardent antilynching proponents in America, he investigated more than 40 lynchings and eight race riots. As a Guggenheim Fellow he conducted a study of lynching in the United States, the basis of his Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch (1929). He became acting secretary of the NAACP the same year and continued to promote his antilynching efforts, along with launching campaigns against segregation in public facilities, white primaries, and the poll taxes, and against educational discrimination. Author of several other books and numerous articles, he was awarded the Spingarn Medal (1937) in recognitioon of his efforts on behalf of African-Americans. Because of his efforts and those of A. Philip Randolph, President Franklin Roosevelt prohibited discrimination in the defense industries and established the Fair Employment Practices Commission (1941). Journalistic research he conducted in Europe, published as A Rising Wind (1945), influenced President Harry Truman's decision to desegregate the armed forces. In 1946 he pressured President Truman to set up the President's Committee on Civil Rights, and this led the Democrats to adopt the divisive civil rights platform in 1948. Also concerned with worldwide prejudice, he was less successful on this front and was criticized as an autocrat inside the NAACP. Although he retained his post until his death, from 1949 on his powers were limited.
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In a nation that only understood black and white, Walter White could never quite fit.