Walter White of NAACP Asserts America's 'Race Problem' Undermines Overseas Efforts

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Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, ca. 1930s.

Walter White, head of the NAACP, ponders race and foreign relations at the Great Hall of Cooper Union, in New York City, in this 1949 recording.

Just back from a round-the-world tour undertaken to investigate how America is perceived abroad, White's talk is nevertheless entitled "The Race Problem in the United States," as he ingeniously ties the country's foreign policy concerns to its attitudes toward blacks. During a question and answer period he addresses more wide-ranging topics, including the poll tax, filibusters in the Senate, and the role of the church in desegregation.

"Turn his skin dark and make him live among the Americans!" is the hypothetical punishment one Turkish student proposes for Hitler, had he lived. White argues that perception is the single greatest challenge facing America in the postwar world. No matter how loudly we trumpet our upholding of democratic ideals, no matter how much largesse we distribute via the Marshall Plan and other forms of foreign aid, as long as America is still seen as treating anyone with colored skin as a second-class citizen we are at a grave disadvantage when battling the Soviet Union for the hearts and minds of Asia, Africa, and Europe. He explains to an Italian the filibuster laws of the U.S. Senate, which prevent the passing of anti-lynching laws. Then you do not have a democracy, the Italian points out, "you have an oligarchy." White dwells in particular on his meeting with Nehru, in India, warning that there, too, America is in danger of losing out to Russia because the population is naturally horrified at reported discrimination against people of color. The future he paints, if more is not done for integration at home is, "the isolation of America as a tiny spot of alleged and spurious democracy." 

White was born in Atlanta in 1893. His parents belonged to the black middle class. White himself was blonde and blue-eyed, only "five thirty-seconds" black. Indeed, one of his maternal ancestors was William Henry Harrison, ninth president of the United States. Although able to pass for white in the segregated South, White identified completely with the black community. In 1918, at the invitation of NAACP Executive Secretary James Weldon Johnson, he moved to New York, where he served as Johnson's personal assistant, taking over the leadership of the organization in 1931. White's mixed racial heritage enabled him to perform unique duties for the organization. In its segment on Jim Crow Stories, the website reports:

…his fair appearance enabled him to travel to communities where lynchings had occurred. Passing as a white man, he gathered the details about the crime and the names of the participants. He would then publish this information in the NAACP magazine THE CRISIS and various newspapers.

White established the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund to help disenfranchised blacks and to challenge segregation laws. He also fought tirelessly for legislation aimed at broadening civil rights. As a behind-the-scenes force he had considerable influence. The New York Times listed, among his many achievements, getting:

… a federal anti-lynching bill nearer to passage than ever before in 20 years of effort. The bill was defeated only after seven weeks of filibuster by Southern Senators. In 1930 he helped block the confirmation of President Hoover's appointment of John J. Parker of North Carolina to the Supreme Court, because of the judge's approval of racial segregation. He was the author of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's executive order on Fair Employment Practices in war industry during World War II. And he was responsible for President Harry Truman's stand on civil rights [desegregating the Army] that caused the Dixiecrat bolt from the Democrats in the 1948 campaign.

The price of this "insider" strategy was the accusation that the black civil rights movement had been co-opted by its association with the entrenched powers of the day. White was careful not to criticize the McCarthy witch-hunts, fearing the NAACP would lose its tax-exempt status, and even issued a pamphlet attacking Paul Robeson for his Communist sympathies. This led, by the end of his reign, to a backlash from some members of the organization. But during his long time at the helm of the civil rights struggle significant progress was made. The Gale Encyclopedia of Biography notes that:

…Critics charged that White was too close to the New Deal, that he failed to build a mass base for his organization, and that his autocratic style led him to view other African-American organizations and leaders as rivals rather than as potential allies. But it is clear that White was devoted to bringing African-Americans into the mainstream of American life and that he shared the liberal, reformist aspirations of his age. When he died, 10 months after the historic Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision (1954), he had lived long enough to see the legal basis of that exclusion overturned. He was a consistent and articulate spokesman in the cause of human rights.

White was also an author, writing two novels, an autobiography, and a study of lynching. He was one of the prime movers behind the Harlem Renaissance, encouraging Carl Van Vechten and Alfred A. Knopf to publish African-American literature. His own peculiar situation, being "a Negro by choice," as he was often called, was the subject of Sinclair Lewis's novel Kingsblood Royal

White died in 1955, at the age of 61. 


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.