Mr. NAACP: The Politics of Walter White

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MR NAACP

March 21, 1955, Walter White's last, began much like any other day for the executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and one of black America's best known faces. He awoke after a restless night, owing to chronic heart problems - brought on by excessive smoking and a lifetime of punishing travel in service to the cause - that had sidelined him for the past several weeks. But this day there was no keeping him away from the association's midtown New York offices. He had grown restless on his month-long Caribbean holiday in February, where, instead of convalescing, he began to outline his plans to pillory in the 1956 elections those liberal politicians "who today callously give us the brushoff." He arrived shortly after noon and, as in thousands of days past, immersed himself in routine office matters. Roy Wilkins said that Walter "had seemed so very much his old self - chipper, cheerful, confident, even relaxed." His last memo of the day, dictated around 3:00, suggested that the NAACP purchase tickets to a fundraising banquet. It was not that he particularly cared for the cause, but Eleanor Roosevelt did, and he therefore thought it wise to take heed. He puttered around the office until around 5:00, went home to his West Sixty-eighth Street town house, and dropped dead of a heart attack just before seven in the evening.

In its obituary the following day, The New York Times offered that "White, the nearest approach to a national leader of American Negroes since Booker T. Washington, was a Negro by choice." In that epigram are the essential themes of Walter White's life and work: his will to be the preeminent Negro leader and determine the direction of the civil rights struggle, to counsel and influence presidents and other powerful politicians, to mediate between the worlds of the races - and of course his complexion, his straight blond hair and blue eyes. His appearance gave him the option - which he did not exercise - to pass for white, but it nevertheless stamped the way he looked at the world and the way the world looked at him.

Walter White reveled in the disorientation caused by his apparent whiteness. He loved to tell of the time he was on a train and an ostensibly cultured southern man assured him that he could tell if a Negro was trying to pass simply by looking at his fingernails; examining White's, the man told him that unlike his, blacks' fingernails had pink crescents at the cuticles. He recounted with glee the bafflement on prominent whites' faces when he unexpectedly revealed to them his racial identity. He derived great satisfaction from this masquerade, thus putting one over on whites. He enjoyed his work with Algernon Black, the leader of the Ethical Culture Society, with whom he served in the wake of the 1943 Harlem riot. White appreciated Black's comment that "the Black-White Committee is an ideal combination, especially since the man named 'Black' is white and the man named 'White' is black - or calls himself black."

His complexion had a serious side to it as well - sometimes deadly serious. From 1918 to 1930 he investigated 41 lynchings and eight race riots, frequently passing for white to gather information. His easy manner, Atlanta roots, and white appearance gave him sources in mobs and the Ku Klux Klan circles that were the journalists' envy. On one occasion he was deputized and given permission to shoot blacks, and on others he worried about his personal safety should his incognito be exposed.

African Americans' reaction to the way Walter White used his skin color to shape his public image ranged from amused to hostile. Several friends and acquaintances kidded him, saying he was passing for black. "Our very deepest personal and 'racial' thanks for your visit here," wrote one longtime friend after White spoke in her city. "Of course," she added, "you're not 'colored' but we accept your own label and thank you just the same - perhaps more. …