In Search of Democracy: The NAACP Writings of James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and Roy Wilkins (1920-1977)

By Sondra Kathryn Wilson | Go to book overview

Selected Reports of the NAACP Secretary to the
Board of Directors, 1932–1954

Editor's Note

Walter White stopped in at the NAACP offices on the afternoon of March 21, 1955. He had just returned from a one-month vacation in the Caribbean where he had been recovering from a second heart attack. Appearing to be in top form and delighted to be back in the thick of things, he decided to return to work before the planned date of April 1. Unfortunately, this would be his last day at the NAACP. Three hours after he left his office, he died of a heart attack at home in New York City. Roy Wilkins wrote that it was so typical of him to stop by the office before going home to die. Only an act of God could stop White, the relentless civil rights crusader.1

When White joined the staff of the NAACP in 1918 as assistant secretary, he volunteered to undertake a dangerous assignment. He used his deceptive appearance to pass for white in order to gain information for the NAACP in its quest to publicize the facts of the reprehensible crime of lynching. As NAACP investigator, White often mingled with the perpetrators of the crime. Talking with them as a white man, he often cheered their heinous acts to appear sincere. Hearing these executioners boasting about riddling "nigger wenches" with bullets until they stopped moaning, or witnessing the charred body parts of lynching victims passed around for souvenirs, he would become nauseated.

When these murderers became suspicious of him, he was forced to flee these southern villages, escaping within inches of his life. White became invaluable to the NAACP for his investigations of forty lynchings and eight race riots. He gathered information for the NAACP's publicity machine that no discernible black man could have attained.

White was no stranger to mob violence. At the age of thirteen his family home became a target for an angry mob of racists during the Atlanta riot of 1905. This experience marked a turning point in his life. He realized what it meant to be a black person in America. Years later, in his autobiography, he wrote about the experience:

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