Lately I have been working researching Walter White.  White was brought into the national office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people in 1918 as an assistant for James Weldon Johnson.  He served the NAACP for the rest of his life first as Johnson’s assistant and then as acting executive secretary of the the Association and actual secretary from 1929 till his death in  1955. Over the period of his service he helped shape the NAACP and the national civil rights agenda more than anybody else in the country. Hardly a saint he bullied people, sometimes acted ruthlessly, and had an off and on affair throughout most of his marriage. He was thoroughly narcissistic yet utterly devoted to the advancement of African Americans.  As W.E.B. Du Bois once wrote,

“He was absolutely self-centered and egotistical to the point that he was almost unconscious of it.  He seemed really to believe that his personal interests and the interests of his race and organization were identical.”

Yet, because of what some would see as a character flaw, not in spite of it, he was in many ways an admirable man. He was an untiring worker putting in many hours, traveling many miles, speaking and writing in many forums to see that his cause and the cause of his people was brought to politicians and the general populace.  His narcissism led to his intensity and probably the limited though amazing success he had against overwhelming odds. His overwork probably led to the heart trouble which felled him in 1955 and caused the breakup of his marriage. All of this is further complicated by the fact that Walter White looked white. With his dirty blond hair and blue eyes he could have passed for Caucasian and avoided all the caste infirmities of being black in the America of the first half of the twentieth century.  Despite this he steadfastly continued to wear his blackness as a badge of honor even when others considered him white.

To their credit his biographers Kenneth Janken and Thomas Dyja have not tried to conceal his weaknesses.  They have examined him in his totality and complexity.   To be sure there is a long history of the imperfect hero.  The ancient Greek heroes  had a tragic flaw, that is, a weakness that also made one great.  Oedipus’s search for the truth is what made him discover that he had killed his father, married his mother and thus reach his tragic fate. The hard boiled detective heroes of Dashiell Hammet and the like maintained their integrity in a world of questionable ethics and immorality. The modern anti-hero, the ambiguous and “accidental” hero are staples of contemporary text, stage and screen.

However in today’s atmosphere of “gotcha” journalism and media glare there is also a practice of putting heroes on pedestals then gleefully watching them fall as they demonstrate human frailties. Once brought low there also seems to be some limited rehabilitation if they come clean, admit their transgressions and seek forgiveness from us. Marion Barry was re-elected mayor of Washington D.C. when his transgressions were caught on tape. Those who are unrepentant about their fall from grace are confined to the purgatory of fallen heroes or forgotten. Think O.J. Simpson here. Rarely the heroic actions are so great and the transgressions so small like with Martin Luther King’s infidelities that they do not tarnish the hero at all but also time lends some historic perspective and so William Jefferson Clinton remains a hero to some..

The question I face is how much of his weakness and how much of his strength to show in my online project about Walter White. My historian’s knee jerk reaction is to present him warts and all so that the chips will fall where they may. This is especially true for Mr. White whose weakness “narcissism” is the source of his greatest strength “tenacity.” If he were a Greek hero it would be his tragic flaw. However the audience for this online project is a large and general one.  Would high school or younger youth be better served by emphasizing his strengths and achievements or  how his flaws made him a control freak micro-manager,  difficult to work with if you differed with him, and ended his marriage? His narcissism wedded him to the Progressive era tactics he had grown up with and prevented him from making the Association more democratic and concerned with economic issues as Du Bois said in the 1930’s and later others would counsel. As Janken points out the slow legalistic tactics of the NAACP under him left the Association ill prepared for the the mass action civil rights movement that was to come after his death.

At the end I guess I come around to the position that his weakness was his strength and the shortcomings of his tenure were what they were.  This is probably true of all of us (including me of course) and it may be the most important lesson any biography can teach. I’m going to present it all.

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