A Man Called White and Exploring America’s Darkest Secret in “White Lies”

A Man Called White and Exploring America’s Darkest Secret in “White Lies”

Chicago Review of Books

Steve Nathans-Kelly

An interview with A.J. Baime about his new book, “White Lies: The Double Life of Walter F. White and America’s Darkest Secret.”

When we speak of the peak years of the Civil Rights Movement, typically we refer to the period beginning with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56—which thrusted Martin Luther King, Jr. onto the national stage. This canonical era concludes with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965 following the pivotal showdown in Selma. Those eleven years formed the Movement’s dominant narrative, which blurred and obscured most of what came before and after (and oversimplified much that’s in between).

Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s landmark 2005 essay, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Uses of the Past,” ushered in a critical reassessment of these artificial historical boundaries. Hall argued that anointing this era not only limited the movement’s lifespan to a “halcyon decade,” but also narrowed its goals to the pursuit of a vaguely defined “color-blind” society, a notion later used to recast King and others as proponents of neoliberal social and fiscal policy.

Focusing exclusively on this period also meant overlooking many of the foundational figures who preceded it and laid the groundwork for nearly everything that followed.

One such figure is Walter F. White—known in his lifetime as “Mr. NAACP”—who led America’s most powerful civil rights organization from 1929 until his death in 1955. White featured prominently in nearly every important battle against segregation and white supremacy during those years. White’s extraordinary life demonstrates how blinding white Americans’ appalling lack of color-blindness could be.

By all appearances, the blond-haired and blue-eyed Walter White was white. But like his multiracial parents, both born to formerly enslaved people, White identified as Black throughout his life. In his early years with the NAACP, he used his appearance to infiltrate Southern white communities as an undercover white man, gathering critical information on brutal lynchings from killers keen to brag about their crimes…

Read the entire interview here.

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