When Walter White joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s New York staff in 1918, he had a thin record of civil rights activism. But he quickly made himself into the association’s indispensable man, particularly skilled at communicating the terror of racial violence to white audiences. It was a talent built partly on his limitless courage, partly on his incessant charm, and partly on a family inheritance that set him apart from most of Black America. “I am a Negro,” he wrote late in life. “My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.”

But the marks of slavery were. The sexual exploitation that ran through the antebellum South coiled tightly round White’s maternal line: Both his great-grandfather and grandfather were prominent white men; his great-grandmother and grandmother, enslaved women powerless to resist them. His mother was born into bondage, too, just as the Civil War was about to bring the slave system down. Over the decades of freedom that followed, she and the light-skinned man she married pulled their family into the Black middle class, where their color carried a great deal of cachet. There White was born and raised, wrapped in the Victorian virtues of turn-of-the-century Atlanta’s most prestigious Black neighborhood as Jim Crow closed in around him.

A.J. Baime centers the first two thirds of his vigorous biography, “White Lies: The Double Life of Walter F. White and America’s Darkest Secret,” on the first 12 years of White’s confrontation with that brutal regime. His breakthrough came two weeks into his time as an NAACP staffer, when his boss, the incomparable James Weldon Johnson, sent him to investigate a lynching in tiny Estill Springs, Tennessee. White arrived in town claiming to be a traveling salesman. In short order, he was sitting in the general store, chatting up the locals who assumed that he was as white as they were. By nightfall, he had gathered all the horrifying details that made his resulting exposé, published in the NAACP magazine, the Crisis, a sensation.

It was the start of a remarkable run, which Baime recounts with the vividness it deserves. Shortly after his Tennessee story appeared in print, White slipped across the color line again to report on an even more appalling lynching in Georgia. The next year, he infiltrated the mob that had killed as many as 200 Black farmers in a racial pogrom in rural Arkansas. In May 1921, he spent a terrifying night patrolling the still-smoldering ruins of Black Tulsa with some of the white men who had set the neighborhood to burning. And during a few days in backcountry South Carolina in 1926, he uncovered the local authorities’ complicity in a savage triple murder.

From that darkness, he dreamed of making art. Through the early 1920s, he assiduously courted those white writers, editors and publishers powerful enough to help him launch the Black literary movement he believed would uplift his race. His own contributions became two of the Harlem Renaissance’s most publicized novels, one about a Black doctor’s political awakening, the other about the dangers of racial passing. Those triumphs he followed with a landmark study of lynching published just a year before his last investigation, of the gruesome assault that left two young men hanging from a tree in Marion, Indiana, in the fetid summer of 1930.

By then, Johnson was winding down his tenure as the NAACP’s executive secretary. In March 1931, White took his place, a promotion that required him to set aside the dramatic interventions of the 1920s for the organizational work that would define the rest of his professional life. Baime uses the last third of his book to lay out his accomplishments. Under White’s direction, the association promoted interracial unionization, pried open Blacks’ access to wartime defense work, and pushed the Pentagon to desegregate the military. The NAACP started the legal campaign that would dismantle Jim Crow’s claim to constitutionality. And it became a political powerhouse, with White as its symbolic center, sweeping into the Oval Office for the consultations that were due a man people took to calling “Mr. NAACP.”


But there were problems, too. He hesitated to defend the Scottsboro Boys – nine poor Black teenagers accused of raping two young white women in 1931 Alabama – in large part, because they didn’t fit the respectable middle-class image he expected the association to project. He drove his most esteemed colleague, W.E.B. Du Bois, out of the NAACP in a fight steeped in the poisonous politics of skin color. Some of his most talented staffers bristled at his tendency to favor presidential photo ops over the hard work of organizing ordinary people. And, in 1949, he eviscerated his standing in the association and the Black communities that supported it by divorcing his wife of 27 years so that he could marry the white woman he loved.

Baime details those difficulties, but he never really grapples with the racial dynamics behind them. It’s a crucial omission, as it’s through those dynamics that White’s story speaks most powerfully to the American dilemma. Here was a man who had been born bearing the signs of racial exploitation, who had taken enormous risks to reveal the horrors of racial domination, who despite all he had seen still believed that justice might be secured through his passions and commitments. Yet he had let some of the central assumptions, preferences and prejudices of the nation’s racial order shape his sense of the movement he directed and the life he sought to lead. Such was the power of that order that even a man as extraordinary as Walter White couldn’t quite overcome it.

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Kevin Boyle teaches American history at Northwestern University. His most recent book is “The Shattering: America in the 1960s.”

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