A vigorous examination of ‘Mr. NAACP,’ who passed as White

Posted in Articles, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive on 2022-04-01 02:58Z by Steven

A vigorous examination of ‘Mr. NAACP,’ who passed as White

The Washington Post

Kevin Boyle, William Smith Mason Professor of American History
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

Walter White was executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in June 1942. (Gordon Parks/Farm Security Administration/Library of Congress) (Gordon Parks /Farm Security Administration/Library of Congress

When Walter White joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s New York staff in 1918, he had a thin record of civil rights activism. But he quickly made himself into the association’s indispensable man, particularly skilled at communicating the terror of racial violence to White audiences. It was a talent built partly on his limitless courage, partly on his incessant charm, and partly on a family inheritance that set him apart from most of Black America. “I am a Negro,” he wrote late in life. “My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.”

But the marks of slavery were. The sexual exploitation that ran through the antebellum South coiled tightly round White’s maternal line: Both his great-grandfather and grandfather were prominent White men; his great-grandmother and grandmother, enslaved women powerless to resist them. His mother was born into bondage, too, just as the Civil War was about to bring the slave system down. Over the decades of freedom that followed, she and the light-skinned man she married pulled their family into the Black middle class, where their color carried a great deal of cachet. There White was born and raised, wrapped in the Victorian virtues of turn-of-the-century Atlanta’s most prestigious Black neighborhood as Jim Crow closed in around him.

A.J. Baime centers the first two thirds of his vigorous biography, “White Lies: The Double Life of Walter F. White and America’s Darkest Secret,” on the first 12 years of White’s confrontation with that brutal regime. His breakthrough came two weeks into his time as an NAACP staffer, when his boss, the incomparable James Weldon Johnson, sent him to investigate a lynching in tiny Estill Springs, Tenn. White arrived in town claiming to be a traveling salesman. In short order, he was sitting in the general store, chatting up the locals who assumed that he was as White as they were. By nightfall, he had gathered all the horrifying details that made his resulting exposé, published in the NAACP magazine, the Crisis, a sensation…

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