Compact, insightful biography seeks to restore the historical importance of the energetic, light-skinned NAACP secretary whose leadership laid the groundwork for the civil-rights movement.
As a result of forced sexual relations on both sides of his family, Walter White (1893–1955) was only 5/32nds black. Some historians have seen the blue-eyed, blond-haired activist as “a freak of nature who somehow used his fair skin to deceive both white and black America,” writes Dyja (The Moon in Our Hands, 2005, etc.). The author portrays White as a witty, ambitious man who had the courage and passion to challenge Jim Crow segregationist laws. Raised black but able to pass for white, he used this as a tool when he joined the NAACP in 1918 to investigate the growing number of lynchings in the South. Risking his own life numerous times, he lured lynchers into proudly confessing murder and torture to a man they thought was white. He wrote articles and gave incendiary talks to highlight his findings, using the mass media to gradually turn Americans against lynching. In New York, White was an early member of the Harlem Renaissance, though his literary success was limited; he wrote an anti-lynching novel (Fire in the Flint, 1924) and encouraged other writers to portray African-American life in all its complexity. He became secretary of the NAACP in 1931 and incessantly championed civil rights, making the cover of Time in 1938. He effectively blocked the Supreme Court nomination of John Parker, who supported black disenfranchisement; his relentless pressure resulted in Truman’s landmark 1948 executive orders ending discrimination in federal employment and requiring equal opportunity in the armed forces. His crowning legacy was the 1954 Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated schooling. White’s 1949 marriage to a white woman gave ammunition to critics who diminished his role in African-American history by saying he never believed he was black, but Dyja successfully shows that he transcended narrow definitions of race and worked for humanity.
Able tribute to a boundary-smashing activist.