By DONNA URSCHEL
Kenneth Robert Janken, author of "White: The Biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP," told an audience at the Library on Feb. 25 that the accomplishments of Walter White from the 1920s to the 1950s in the fields of civil rights, politics and black culture, though long forgotten, are well worth remembering.
White stemmed the epidemic of mob murders and lynchings, guided the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) into prominence, helped to launch the Harlem Renaissance, and participated in the many legal campaigns against segregation, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Janken, associate professor of Afro-American studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, used the Library's NAACP records in the Manuscript Division as a major resource for the book, which is the first biography of White. Janken's presentation was part of the Center for the Book's Books & Beyond series of talks that highlight new books based on the Library's collections and programs.
Adrienne Cannon, Afro-American history and culture specialist in the Manuscript Division, introduced Janken and described the significance of the NAACP collection, which consists of approximately 5 million items dating from 1909, the year of the association's inception, to 1995.
"The NAACP records are the largest single collection ever acquired by the Library and, annually, the most heavily used," said Cannon. The collection includes manuscripts, photographs, pamphlets, broadsides, phonograph records, and audio and video tape recordings.
"Every phase of NAACP's many activities to advance the struggle for racial equality is reflected in this rich and diverse collection," she said.
The NAACP collection is the cornerstone of the Library's unparalleled resources for the study of the 20th-century civil rights movement and leaders in the fight for civil liberties. In addition to the materials of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the collection holds the records of the National Urban League, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. The Library also holds the papers of prominent activists, such as Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins, Arthur Spingarn, A. Philip Randolph and many more.
Janken said that White, throughout his life, reveled in the confusion and opportunities created by his extremely fair complexion. Although White was African American, with parents who were born into slavery, he, nevertheless, looked white. Janken explained, "He was known in his day as a voluntary Negro–an African American who could pass for white, but chose not to."
Instead, he chose to exploit his complexion to advance the rights of African Americans. During the 1920s and 1930s, White, operating incognito at great personal peril, investigated more than 40 lynchings and mob riots. Posing as a white man, he was able to uncover details of the crimes. His findings generated much publicity and eventually led to a stemming of the lynching epidemic in the South.
"He loved to make rednecks look foolish. By doing so, he punctured their pompous racial superiority," said Janken. "He encouraged African Americans to shake off the grip of fear that lynch mobs had on them."
Over the years, White enjoyed discussing his many cases of mistaken identity, hoping to explode myths of racial inferiority and categorization and to encourage whites to rethink preconceptions.
As executive secretary of the NAACP from 1931 to 1955, White pushed the organization to prominence. "The NAACP lobbying campaigns, which he devised and orchestrated through the 1930s, were textbook cases in effectiveness. By the late 1930s, the NAACP was an organization that politicians had to reckon with and ignore at their own peril," said Janken.
White wrote two novels, "The Fire and the Flint" and "Flight," helped many African American singers and actors, and launched the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. Janken said, "After a long day at the office, you could find him club-hopping into the late hours, taking around critics of the New York Evening Post or potential funders for the NAACP."
He and his wife hosted numerous parties at their home as well. Janken said George Gershwin was at one of these parties and premiered his new composition "Rhapsody in Blue" on White's piano.
Janken said White bore the primary responsibility for keeping the NAACP together through the years, of conducting the daily tasks of raising money and insisting on an organization that defended and extended the rights of African Americans.
After World War II, White suggested to President Truman that he establish a commission on civil rights. Truman took his advice, and in 1947 the President's Commission on Civil Rights released a statement that called for the elimination of segregation. Truman endorsed the commission's report, Janken said.
White was intimately involved in the legal campaigns to end the Jim Crow laws. He participated in all the strategy sessions that built up cases against segregation from the 1930s through the 1950s.
Wrapping up his talk, Janken said White had an important and compelling career. "In the nine years I was working on this book, I never, ever got tired of Walter White."
Donna Urschel is a freelance writer.