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White: The Biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP

September 24, 2003 // 12:00am

White: The Biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP
A Book Launch with author Kenneth Janken

Kenneth Janken, Associate Professor of African and Afro-American Studies, author, University of North Carolina; Dianne Pinderhughes, Wilson Center and Professor of Political Science and Afro-American Studies, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Raymond Gavins, Wilson Center and Professor of History, Duke University, commentators.

Because Walter White worked for the NAACP from 1918 and led the organization from 1931 to 1955, his life story is in large part the history of the NAACP as well. Kenneth Janken's discussion of White's life therefore provides a useful lens through which to examine the fight for integration and equal treatment in the crucial years before Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

In speaking at a book launch organized by the Division of United States Studies, Prof. Janken highlighted White's and the NAACP's pragmatism, belief in gradualism and emphasis on legal rather than mass action. White and other NAACP leaders such as Thurgood Marshall feared that mass action would discredit the African-American cause and favored instead an elitist approach that remained firmly within the existing political system. White's opposition to socialism and his emphasis on race rather than class accounted for the NAACP's volatile and ultimately difficult relationship with the Communist Party. While White joined the Communist Party's effort to organize the Progressive Party in 1946, he abandoned the Progressives in 1948 in order to back Harry Truman's campaign for the presidency and ousted W.E. B DuBois from the NAACP for his support of Henry Wallace.
White picked the fights he thought he could win and went so far as to give the FBI small pieces of information in order to protect the NAACP, presenting the organization to the FBI as a moderate alternative to more radical entities.

Dianne Pinderhughes discussed the difference between the NAACP's top-down, legalistic approach and the more grassroots approaches that characterized other social change movements such as the women's movement later in the twentieth century. She noted that women's work was vital to the founding of both the NAACP and the Urban League and that those organizations built upon others created by women, but women's work was treated dismissively by black leaders throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. As evidence of White's antipathy for women's participation in the NAACP, Prof. Pinderhughes cited the fact that when he began organizing NAACP branches, White's first list ignored women and the dynamic organizations they had already created. Even after he was encouraged by others to think about women's possible contributions, not a single woman appeared on White's second list.

Raymond Gavins commented that the issues discussed in White are central to the national conversation that is beginning to take place as the nation approaches the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education–which was of course brought by the NAACP under White's leadership. The book helps break down the view of the African-American movement as cohering only in the second half of the twentieth century. Janken, Prof. Gavins said, presents White as a liberal New Deal democrat. Gavins called White a "modernist" in activities such as his brokering of the Harlem Renaissance and his pursuit of a Guggenheim Foundation award. What White did not do was give sufficient credit to the kind of mass action that did exist during his tenure at the NAACP, such as the march down Pennsylvania Avenue that occurred at the time of the Scottsboro case–which, as Janken suggested, the NAACP botched by focusing only on legal action. Its opposition to mass action was a blind spot in what was otherwise White's pragmatic belief that anything effective was worth doing and anything that was worth doing ought to be effective.


Philippa Strum, Director of US Studies 202-691-4129

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