The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow A Century of Segregation
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Jim Crow Stories

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Walter White (1893-1955)
Walter White

Walter White was one of the outstanding civil rights leaders in America between 1920 and 1955. He joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1918 and almost immediately became its chief investigator of lynching. Because of his blue eyes and blonde hair, he could easily pass for Caucasian. But instead, he chose to go through life as a black man.
"I am not white. There is nothing within my mind and heart which tempts me to think I am."
White with a colleague
One of the major events in his life that helped him make this decision was the race riot in Atlanta, Georgia in 1906; he escaped the mob only because his fair complexion allowed him to pass through it safely. After he joined the NAACP, his fair appearance enabled him to travel to communities where lynchings had occurred. Passing as a white man, he gathered the details about the crime and the names of the participants. He would then publish this information in the NAACP magazine THE CRISIS and various newspapers.

In 1929, White became executive director of the NAACP, succeeding James Weldon Johnson. White's main goal was to have the federal government pass an anti-lynching law. Although Southern senators prevented the law from being enacted, White's exposes of the "Southern horror," and his publicity campaign helped change the climate of public opinion and pressured the South to out its own house in order; the number of lynchings declined in the latter part of the 1930s. In 1934, a long simmering feud between White and W.E.B. Du Bois came to the surface after Du Bois wrote an article advocating voluntary segregation as a temporary expedient in the face of massive white resistance to blacks. This was contrary to the NAACP's policy, and Du Bois resigned rather than retract his position.

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White invited Charles Hamilton Houston, Dean of Law at Howard University, to join the NAACP and lead its legal attack on Jim Crow. In 1941, White assisted his colleague, labor leader A. Philip Randolph, in pressuring President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to issue the executive order creating the Fair Employment Practices Act, which banned discrimination in government and war industries. White's autobiography, A MAN CALLED WHITE, was published in 1948.

--Richard Wormser

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Related Pages
National Negro Business League
W.E.B. Du Bois
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