Walter Francis White was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on 1st July, 1893. His father was a postman and his mother a schoolteacher. Atlanta had Jim Crow laws and as a child White attended African American schools and sat in the rear of buses. When he was thirteen White experienced a race riot in Atlanta.
Although White's African American school was of a poor standard he managed to obtain a place at Atlanta University. After graduating in 1916 White worked for Standard Life, a large insurance company. He also became secretary of the Atlanta branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). White organized a campaign to improve African American public facilities in the city. This brought him to the attention of James Weldon Johnson, who offered him a full-time post at the NAACP.
White's main task at the NAACP was to investigate lynching and race riots. His light skin enabled him to pass as a white man and this helped him acquire information about racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. His research was eventually published in the book, Rope and Faggot (1929).
In 1929 White was appointed chief executive of the NAACP. He was seen as a moderate and clashed with those members of the organization arguing for more militant action. This included William Du Bois who eventually resigned as editor of the organization's journal, The Crisis, after White criticised his support for "non discriminatory segregation". White now appointed another moderate, Roy Wilkins, as the new editor of the journal.
White was appalled when in 1930 President Herbert Hoover selected John J. Parker of North Carolina to become a member of the Supreme Court. Parker had stated on many occasions that he was opposed to African Americans having the vote. Over the next few months White lobbied members of the Senate and was able to persuade them to reject Parker's nomination by 41 to 39.
White, a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, was a supporter of the New Deal. However, he was critical of some programs such as the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). White felt that the National Labour Relations Act did not provide trade union members with enough protection and he was unable to persuade Franklin D. Roosevelt to advocate an anti-lynching bill.
In 1935 White managed to persuade the brilliant African American lawyer, Charles Houston, to head the NAACP legal department. The following year he recruited Thurgood Marshall to the department. Houston and Marshall led the challenge through the courts of issues such as segregation in transportation and publicly owned places of recreation, inequities in the segregated education system and restrictive covenants in housing.
White was an outstanding propagandist and articles that he wrote about African American civil rights appeared in a variety of journals including Collier's, Saturday Evening Post, The Nation, Harper's Magazine and the New Republic. White also wrote a regular column in the New York Herald Tribune and the Chicago Defender.
In 1949 White offered to resign for medical reasons. The NAACP Board of Directors wanted White to remain and so instead gave him a one-year leave of absence. While he was away he was replaced by Roy Wilkins.
Soon afterwards it was discovered that White was divorcing his African-American wife to marry a white woman named Poppy Cannon. One member of the board, Carl Murphy, wanted White fired. Others, led by William Hastie, argued that it was hypocritical for the NAACP to preach racial equality and then fire him for having an interracial marriage.
In 1950 White wanted to return to his post. Eventually it was decided to create a dyad system. Roy Wilkins took charge of all internal matters whereas White was given the post of executive secretary. Walter Francis White remained the NAACP's official spokesman until his death on 21st March, 1955.
Either the spirit of the abolitionists, of Lincoln and of Lovejoy must be revived and we must come to treat the Negro on a plane of absolute political and social equality, or Vardaman and Tillman will soon have transferred the race war to the North. Yet who realizes the seriousness of the situation, and what large and powerful body of citizens is ready to come to their aid?
In the summer of 1908, the country was shocked by the account of the race riots at Springfield, Illinois. Here, in the home of Abraham Lincoln, a mob containing many of the town's "best citizens," raged for two days, killed and wounded scores of Negroes, and drove thousands from the city. Articles on the subject appeared in newspapers and magazines. Among them was one in the Independent by William English Walling, entitled Race War in the North.
For four years I had been studying the status of the Negro in New York. I had investigated his housing conditions, his health, his opportunities for work. I had spent many months in the South, and at the time of Mr. Walling's article, I was living in a New York Negro tenement on a Negro Street. And my investigations and my surroundings led me to believe with the writer of the article that "the spirit of the abolitionists must be revived."
So I wrote to Mr. Walling, and after some time, for he was in the West, we met in New York in the first week of the year of 1909. With us was Dr. Henry Moskowitz, now prominent in the administration of John Purroy Mitchell, Mayor of New York. It was then that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was born.
It was born in a little room of a New York apartment. It is to be regretted that there are no minutes of the first meeting, for they would make interesting if unparliamentary reading. Mr. Walling had spent some years in Russia where his wife, working in the cause of the revolutionists, had suffered imprisonment; and he expressed his belief that the Negro was treated with greater inhumanity in the United States that the Jew was treated in Russia. As Mr. Walling is a Southerner we listened with conviction. I knew something of the Negro's difficulty in securing decent employment in the North and of the insolent treatment awarded him at Northern hotels and restaurants, and I voiced my protest. Dr. Moskowitz, with his broad knowledge of conditions among New York's helpless immigrants, aided us in properly interpreting our facts. And so we talked and talked voicing our indignation.
The celebration of the Centennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, widespread and grateful as it may be, will fail to justify itself if it takes no note of and makes no recognition of the colored men and women for whom the great Emancipator labored to assure freedom. Besides a day of rejoicing, Lincoln's birthday in 1909 should be one of taking stock of the nation's progress since 1865.
How far has it lived up to the obligations imposed upon it by the Emancipation Proclamation? How far has it gone in assuring to each and every citizen, irrespective of color, the equality of opportunity and equality before the law, which underlie our American institutions and are guaranteed by the Constitution?
If Mr. Lincoln could revisit this country in the flesh, he would be disheartened and discouraged. He would learn that on January 1, 1909, Georgia had rounded out a new confederacy by disfranchising the Negro, after the manner of all the other Southern States. He would learn that the Supreme Court of the United States, supposedly a bulwark of American liberties, had refused every opportunity to pass squarely upon this disfranchisement of millions, by laws avowedly discriminatory and openly enforced in such manner that the white men may vote and that black men be without a vote in their government; he would discover, therefore, that taxation without representation is the lot of millions of wealth-producing American citizens, in whose hands rests the economic progress and welfare of an entire section of the country.
He would learn that the Supreme Court, according to the official statement of one of its own judges in the Berea College case, has laid down the principle that if an individual State chooses, it may make it a crime for white and colored persons to frequent the same market place at the same time, or appear in an assemblage of citizens convened to consider questions of a public or political nature in which all citizens, without regard to race, are equally interested.
In many states Lincoln would find justice enforced, it at all, by judges elected by one element in a community to pass upon the liberties and lives of another. He would see the black men and women, for whose freedom a hundred thousand of soldiers gave their lives set apart in trains, in which they pay first-class fares for third-class service, and segregated in railway stations and in places of entertainment; he would observe that State after state declines to do its elementary duty in preparing the Negro through education for the best exercise of citizenship.