A twelve-year-old witness to the murderous white riot that killed two dozen black Atlantans and injured hundreds more in 1906, Walter White strove for the next half-century to move America's conscience forward with his honest accounts, in journalism and fiction, of black identity and American racism.
White's myth-shattering study of American lynchings, his breakthrough Harlem Renaissance novels, his searching autobiography, and his scores of articles for journals and magazines about racial violence, peonage, military discrimination, and other symptoms of American racial injustice established White as an important twentieth-century American writer.
After Walter Francis White graduated from Atlanta University in 1916, the son of Madeline and George White left his job selling insurance and joined the Atlanta branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the influential civil rights organization he would eventually lead through four decades of the twentieth century.
Able to "pass" as white because he was light-skinned with blue-eyes, and armed with boundless wits and energy, White became the NAACP's foremost undercover investigator of Southern lynchings. He personally traveled thousands of miles every year between 1918 and 1927, and reported first-hand on forty-one lynchings, eight race riots and at least two major cases of peonage.
"I Investigate Lynchings," a 1929 piece by White in H.L. Mencken's The American Mercury, is an overview of a decade of his investigations, which had appeared in the NAACP monthly journal The Crisis, national magazines like New Republic, American Mercury, Nation and Saturday Evening Post, and in major African American newspapers like the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier,
White's 1929 book Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch drew further upon his investigations in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and other sites of mob white-on-black violence, and he debunked the unfounded, widespread white rationalization that white lynch mobs were reacting to a threat of black sex crimes. Rope and Faggot established instead White's conclusion that the root of white violence against blacks was economic fear, a phenomenon of industrial, post-slavery America that was nurtured especially by narrow-minded Southern Protestant bigotry.
Also in 1927, White contributed two booklets to Emanuel Haldeman-Julius's popular "Little Blue Book" series, The American Negro and His Problems and The Negro's Contribution to American Culture: The Sudden Flowering of a Genius-Laden Artistic Movement.
Like his nonfiction campaigns against lynching, White's two books of fiction sought to convey, from an African-American's perspective, the physical violence, intellectual torment, and political tragedy of racism, through imaginative stories about black American characters.
His first novel (The Fire in the Flint, 1924) was one of the very first books of the American "New Negro Renaissance," a modest best-seller that was translated into French, Russian, Danish, German and Japanese. It tells the story of a Northern-educated doctor who returns to his small Georgia hometown determined to help his fellows while not allowing himself to be caught up in "the race question," a decision which proves not only impossible but tragic.
White's second book (Flight, 1926) told the story of a young New Orleans woman of mixed-race heritage who attempts to surmount personal and racial crises by "passing" as white, eventually to learn that "the benefits thus secured were not worth the price she had to pay."1
In 1931 White succeeded James Weldon Johnson as the national secretary of the NAACP, and he would later chronicle much of that important organization's mid-century struggles for civil rights in his autobiography and in the posthumously published How Far the Promised Land? (1955). In July 1943, White and NAACP Special Counsel Thurgood Marshall co-authored What Caused the Detroit Riot?, an analysis of the June 1943 race riot that left thirty-four people dead, twenty-five of them black.
During World War II, White also visited the European, North African and Pacific theaters of war, sending back to the New York Post and other periodicals accounts of what he saw, These included White's accounts of the experiences of black servicemen on American military bases. He later described much of this experience in A Rising Wind: A Report on the Negro Soldier in the European Theatre of War (1945).
After the war, White wrote editorial columns for the New York Herald-Tribune and Chicago Defender, and in 1948 he published his autobiography, A Man Called White, the first chapter of which recounts his memory of the 1906 Atlanta riots that formed his lifelong commitment to civil rights:
In the flickering light the mob swayed, paused, and began to flow toward us. In that instant there opened within me a great awareness: I knew then who I was. I was a Negro, a human being with an invisible pigmentation which marked me a person to be hunted, hanged, abused discriminated against, kept in poverty, and ignorance, in order that those whose sin was white would have readily at hand a proof patent and inclusive, accessible to the moron and the idiot as well as to the wise man and the genius, but I was glad I was not one of those who hated; I was glad I was not one of those made sick and murderous by pride. I was glad I was not one of those whose story is the history of the world, a record of bloodshed, rapine, and pillage. I was glad my mind and spirit were part of the races that had not fully awakened, and who therefore had still before them the opportunity to write a record of virtue as a memorandum to Armageddon.2
White's final book, How Far the Promised Land? extended his autobiography through his last fifteen years, focusing mainly on the battles that engaged the NAACP during that time. Complete at the time of his death in 1955, it was published posthumously.
According to White's obituary in The New York Times, during his life "Mr. White traveled 1,000,000 miles, including two trips around the world, lecturing and investigating racial discrimination. He made perhaps 10,000 public speeches, wrote five books (including two novels), a hundred articles for national magazines, and for years wrote two weekly columns, one syndicated in Negro newspapers and the other in white papers."3
Although White's life and works were for a time overshadowed by the tumultuous events of the civil rights era following his death, recent scholarship has confirmed his importance as an African-American writer, and between 1995 and 2001 American university presses republished each of his 1920s titles The Fire in the Flint and Rope and Faggot (University of Georgia Press), Flight (LSU Press), and his autobiography, A Man Called White (University of Notre Dame Press).
The following titles by Walter White may be found in the Hall of Fame Library:
The Fire in the Flint. New York: Knopf, 1924.
The Fire in the Flint. London: Williams and Norgate, 1925.
Flight. New York: Knopf, 1926.
Flight. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1926.
The American Negro and His Problems. Girard, Kansas: Haldeman-Julius, 1927.
L'étincelle [Fire in the Flint. French.] Paris: Librairie Plon, 1928.
Rope & Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch. New York: Knopf, 1929.
What Caused the Detroit Riot? (With Thurgood Marshall.) New York: NAACP, 1943.
A Rising Wind. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1945.
A Man Called White. New York: Viking, 1948.
A Man Called White. London: Gollancz, 1949.
Civil Rights: 'Fifty Years of Fighting.' Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Courier, 1950.
How Far the Promised Land? New York: Viking, 1955.
Rope & Faggot. New York: Arno Press, 1969.
A Man Called White. New York: Arno Press, 1969.
A Man Called White. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.
A Man Called White. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.
The Fire in the Flint. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.
Flight. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1998.
Rope & Faggot. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.
Walter White's papers are in the Papers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., and the Walter Francis White/Poppy Cannon Papers at the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.