The name of Walter White is now a household word in 21st-century America thanks to Vince Gilligan, the creator of the extraordinary tv series Breaking Bad. But it is entirely possible--indeed, probable--that when Gilligan named his chemistry teacher turned meth cooker, he did not realize that he had appropriated the name of one of the three or four most important leaders of the American civil rights movement, who was the executive secretary of the NAACP from 1931 until his death in 1955, and who did more than anyone to turn that organization into a political power comparable to AIPAC today. Since I was only 8 when he died, I have no memory of White--although I read a little about him some years later--and unlike Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Dubois, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who preceded and succeeded him as the most prominent Negro leaders in America, he is practically unknown today. I recently read his autobiography, A Man Called White--published in the late 1940s--and I deeply regretted not having gotten to it sooner. White was not so world-famous as Washington, not as intellectual as Dubois, and not as inspirational as King--but he did more than any of them, probably, to make the great breakthroughs of the decade after his death possible.
The most striking thing about White was his appearance. While he always identified himself as a Negro, as did his Atlanta parents, most of his direct ancestors seem to have been white, and he could (and sometimes, temporarily, did) have passed for white had he chosen to do so. He did not. He came from a very strong family, led by his mail man father, and his parents insisted that their children receive an education. White graduated from Atlanta University, where DuBois had taught before Booker T. Washington had essentially forced him out, in 1916, and went into a black-owned insurance business. Two years later, however, he moved to New York, and became active in the NAACP. The bulk of his autobiography is an account of the civil rights struggles of his time, and should be required reading for young Americans.
I would suggest that Americans hold one of two views about civil rights today. The first, fashionable in academia, is that the United States was hopelessly racist from its origins until the mid-1960s and that even now, much remains to be done. The second is that blacks secured equality in a roughly linear fashion in the long period from the Civil War to the 1960s. Both, it turns out, are wrong. When White began his career with the NAACP, Negroes were under siege from a renewed white supremacy movement, as reflected in the growth of lynchings in the South, race riots in cities all over the country, and the recrudescence--and not only in the South--of the Ku Klux Klan. White made his name investigating lynchings. He did so, for a few years at least, by going to the scene of lynchings and passing for white. Invariably he found white men who were not merely willing, but eager, to tell him the goriest details of the lynchings that had just taken place. This was a risky tactic which nearly cost him his life more than once, and he had to give it up after he became better known, but it paid key political dividends. The NAACP adopted, as its major demand, a federal anti-lynching law. Such bills repeatedly passed the House of Representatives in the 1920s and 1930s but were invariably blocked by Senate filibusters. Yet lynching was sufficiently horrifying--especially when White managed to make clear to the white North that many of the victims had not even been accused of a serious crime, but were the victims of terror and intimidation--that it built a broad coalition behind the NAACP's efforts, one that did an enormous amount to make executive, legislative and judicial action possible after the Second World War.
White also spends a lot of time writing about the Great Migration, of which he was a part, and the problems that it caused. Negroes were allowed to live in such small areas within northern cities that their conditions were horrifying. He also realized that many poor white southerners had come North from the time of the First World War onward as well, and that accounted for the terrible racial tension in certain northern cities, including Detroit, which had a dreadful race riot in 1943. A "race riot" in the first half of the twentieth century,. he shows, meant something very different from what we later saw in northern cities in the 1960s, and again in South Central Los Angeles in the early 1990s. We think of such riots as encounters between marauding bands of black demonstrators and looters, on the one hand, and police and national guardsmen on the other. But in those days, such riots were generally started by white mobs roaming the streets trying to find Negroes to kill--and, on occasion, black mobs trying to retaliate.
From at least 1890 until after the Second World War,. the white south was in a determined campaign to keep the Negro a subordinate caste and to make southern values national values. The South was maintaining all-white Democratic primaries to effectively disenfranchise all Negro voters, until the Supreme Court finally ruled against the practice. Pressure from southerners in the first half of the century actually convinced several Ivy League schools (although not Harvard) to segregate their dormitories. In much of the South, Negro education was being cut back. But that was where the NAACP began to make its first breakthroughs.
It was under White's stewardship, apparently, that the NAACP legal defense fund went on the offesnvie against segregated southern education, beginning with graduate professional schools. Two attorneys from a younger generation, Thurgood Marshall and William Hastie, took the lead. They brought several cases demanding that black citizens of various southern states (and Oklahoma) be given an equal legal education, which could only be done by admitting them to the all-white state law school. (Some southern states offered to pay for their Negro citizens' education out of state, but the NAACP effectively argued that it was important for a young man to get his law degree where he intended to practice.) Slowly but surely, the NAACP began to win some of these cases, laying the foundation for Brown v. Board of Education. There is no question, however, but that the Second World War--fought to defeat racist dictatorships, under the banner of equal rights for all--had a tremendous impact as well. When the NAACP brought such a case in Texas in the wake of the war, a new factor was introduced into the situation. Many of the white students in the institution--led by war veterans--demonstrated on behalf of the black plaintiffs. A new generation of white southerners was ready for some changes.
A critical, long-forgotten event in the growth of the NAACP's power occurred in 1930, when President Hoover--for whom White had nothing but contempt--nominated John J. Parker of North Carolina, a circuit court judge, to a vacancy on the U. S Supreme Court. Only ten years earlier, while running for Governor, Parker had publicly defended barriers to Negroes voting in North Carolina, and pronounced "the participation of the Negro in politics" to be "a source of evil and danger to both races," "not desired by the wise men in either race." The NAACP immediately asked Hoover to withdraw the nomination, but he refused. The NAACP immediately decided to mount a nationwide campaign against Parker's confirmation, threatening northern Senators with retaliation at the polls should they vote to put him on the court. White was able to testify against the nomination before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the first time a civil rights leader had been able to play such a role, and he more than held his own in exchanges with a North Carolina Senator who claimed that "nigras" were voting freely in his state. The A.F. of L., the national labor organization, also opposed Parker because of anti-labor decisions he had handed down, but refused to associate its opposition with the NAACP in any way. In the Senate debate, only one northern Senator--Robert F. Wagner of New York, another forgotten hero--explicitly opposed Parker because of his views on race. But Parker was in fact defeated by the narrowest of margins, 39-41, and the NAACP was now a political power in the land, and remained so for 35 critical years.
Certain aspects of White's presentation inevitably strike a contemporary American because things have changed so much. He never hesitates to quote white people using the word "nigger," and indeed takes every opportunity to do so,. obviously in order to convey to his fellow Americans the depth of the prejudice that Negroes faced. He also never misses an opportunity to build a coalition. In the nearly 1930s the lynching debate took a new turn when two white kidnap-murderers were dragged out of their California jail cell and lynched. Governor James Rolph of California shocked the nation by praising what the mob had done, a move that was immortalized in a political cartoon that won the Pulitzer prize. Reading between the lines of White's account, it seems clear that he was quite encouraged by this development, since it encouraged white Americans to join the anti-lynching campaign. The Black Lives Matter movement might want to take a look at A Man Called White and ponder its author's approach to mobilization.
The Second World War opened up new opportunities, new problems, and new issues to fight over. I regret that I had not read White's book before writing No End Save Victory. While I did talk at length about the appointment of White's friend William Hastie as the civilian aide to Secretary of War Stimson with responsibility for problems relating to Negro soldiers, I did not realize why the appointment was made. When the draft was passed in 1940, White and other Negro leaders had gone to the White House to plead, unsuccessfully, for integration in the armed services. Several days later, FDR's Press Secretary Steve Early--a white southerner of very bigoted views--announced not only that segregation would continue, but that the Negro leaders had agreed to this in their meeting. A vigorous public protest led to Hastie's appointment. I also did not realize--and neither did Stimson--that Hastie was already a veteran of some major civil rights fights in the South, and that the blistering report he wrote on the treatment of Negro soldiers, and his eventual resignation in protest from the War Department, should have come as no surprise to anyone.
White was a shrewd judge of character. He has very little to say about other black leaders in the book--especially DuBois, with whom he had a very difficult relationship--but he is refreshingly frank about white politicians. One of his favorites was Wendell Willkie, whom he enlisted as an ally in various civil rights causes. And his assessment of FDR was one of the shrewdest that I have ever seen. He first met him in the White House in 1935, in the midst of a Senate filibuster against the anti-lynching law. Roosevelt was late to the appointment, which allowed White to have a long talk with Eleanor Roosevelt,. well known to be a leading civil rights advocate, and with FDR's mother. When he arrived, the President began making small talk and telling stories. It was this habit, as I wrote in No End Save Victory, that convinced so many people that FDR was not a serious person, but White was not fooled. He knew Roosevelt was simply trying to avoid the unpleasant subject he had come to discuss, and he eventually interrupted to insist that he do so. The President then said frankly that he did not choose the tools he had to work with, much as he might have liked to choose different ones. Nearly every major Congressional committee was chaired by a white southerner, and they would block all his New Deal legislation if he came out for the anti-lynching bill. While obviously disappointed, White unequivocally appreciated much of what FDR was doing for both white and black Americans, and his overall verdict on Roosevelt was very favorable indeed.
White also provided key testimony about another critical turning point in American history, the 1944 Democratic convention. The key issue there was whether the left-wing New Dealer Henry Wallace would continue as Vice President, or give way to a more conservative figure. In the end, FDR managed to swing most of the Convention to Harry Truman, a loyal but less controversial New Dealer, and he prevailed in open balloting. In his tv history of the United States, Oliver Stone argued that this decision doomed postwar America, since Wallace, he thought, would have avoided the Cold War with the USSR. White provides a very different perspective. To begin with, he states unequivocally, virtually every delegate had a good idea of how sick FDR was and knew that they would actually be balloting for his successor in the White House. And the conservatives' preferred candidate to replace Wallace was James Byrnes of South Carolina, an anti-New Dealer and a convinced white supremacist. White understood that the key problem was to stop Byrnes, not to retain Wallace--and it is entirely possible that FDR did too. History might have been very different had Byrnes become President in April 1945.
The greatness of civil rights leaders like White was this: while they knew their cause was just,. they did not expect it automatically to prevail as a result. They pursued patient, long-term strategies and built key coalitions, such as the one the NAACP established with the CIO after it broke with the AF of L in the mid-1930s. They proved to northern politicians that they were a force to be reckoned with. They took advantage of Negro service in the Second World War,. despite the humiliating conditions in which Negroes had to serve. And thus, in 1948, in the midst of a close election campaign, Harry S. Truman called for a truly modern civil rights program and braved the Dixiecrat revolt that resulted. White lived to see Brown v. Board of Education decided, but he died before the great victories that came later. He deserves to be remembered and studied today.