Over the last few years I have been preparing a multimedia project on Walter White, the leader of the NAACP from 1929 until his death in 1955.  I am almost finished. Here is my closing statement:

Walter White was an unarmed David who fought against an entrenched Goliath whose belief in the inferiority of African Americans was unquestioned. The actions of most white Americans ran from benign indifference to the maintenance of a racial caste system which ensured white superiority. Walter White changed that. Between Booker T. Washington’s death and Martin Luther King Jr.’s rise he came to be the personification of hope for those millions of African Americans trapped behind the color line. As his sister wrote him, “the little people in the alleys and slums might not know who the President is or even who Abraham Lincoln was, but they all know and worship Walter White.” Compared to his contemporaries W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey or A. Phillip Randolph his actions and deeds rather than their words improved the lives of more African Americans than anyone else did between the First World War and his death in 1955. As his biographer summed up:

He was opinionated, vain and impulsive, can could engage in chicanery with the best. [Lester Granger of the National Urban League wrote] “His cocky aggressiveness stayed with him as long as he lived – as did his boyhood vanity – but it was these very qualities that helped to make him the best lobbyist our race has ever produced, and one of the best of any race.”…White was “restless, energetic cocky,'” or in the words of his friend Louis Wright, “that damned little pony, always prancing around.”

He was all that and so much more.  He was a Negro by moral choice as well as ancestry.  Once having made that moral choice he literally dedicated his life to the service of civil rights.  He never doubted what side he was on. The long hours, constant stress, and continual travel undoubtedly contributed to the brevity of his life. No matter how many times he lost he persevered in his struggle against racism. He understood full well the difference between power (the ability to make policy decisions) and influence (the ability to sway those who did). At a time when a black man had to content himself with hoping to influence those in power rather than holding power himself, White became a master at it. He led the campaign to bring federal power to bear when local legal and governmental structures were designed to keep African Americans as second class citizens. The NAACP’s legal battles were to move individual discrimination cases all the way to the Supreme Court so that federal power would be brought to bear to end discrimination.  The Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court decision was just one example of such cases. They challenged everything from graduate and professional school discrimination to housing discrimination to voting rights.

By the time of his death his brand of elite politics had perhaps run its course and further progress needed the mass politics he always avoided for fear that he could not control it.  The civil rights movement was about to move into a new phase of mass direct action which would raise up a new leader, Martin Luther King Jr.  However it is worth noting that Rosa Parks whose refusal to give up her bus seat sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, had been a member of the NAACP since 1943 and was volunteer secretary for the Montgomery NAACP branch when she took her action. She was in a sense the child of the struggle that Walter White had led.  The modern civil rights movement grew upon the legacy and organization that White had built into a force potent enough to change America.

Finally Walter wanted to make it possible for black people to marry anyone they wanted.  His own happiness to be with his soul mate took courage to act in the face of what he knew would be outrage from his own NAACP colleagues as well as those racists who opposed interracial marriage. His marriage to whomever he wanted transcended the racial mores, political realities and expectations of others.  When he transcended his “Negro” status for personal happiness he tragically lost his place in history.  His “tragedy” was our failure.

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