A Man Called White and Exploring America’s Darkest Secret in “White Lies” – Chicago Review of Books


When we speak of the peak years of the Civil Rights Movement, typically we refer to the period beginning with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56—which thrusted Martin Luther King, Jr. onto the national stage. This canonical era concludes with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965 following the pivotal showdown in Selma. Those eleven years formed the Movement’s dominant narrative, which blurred and obscured most of what came before and after (and oversimplified much that’s in between).

Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s landmark 2005 essay, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Uses of the Past,” ushered in a critical reassessment of these artificial historical boundaries. Hall argued that anointing this era not only limited the movement’s lifespan to a “halcyon decade,” but also narrowed its goals to the pursuit of a vaguely defined “color-blind” society, a notion later used to recast King and others as proponents of neoliberal social and fiscal policy.

Focusing exclusively on this period also meant overlooking many of the foundational figures who preceded it and laid the groundwork for nearly everything that followed.

One such figure is Walter F. White—known in his lifetime as “Mr. NAACP”—who led America’s most powerful civil rights organization from 1929 until his death in 1955. White featured prominently in nearly every important battle against segregation and white supremacy during those years. White’s extraordinary life demonstrates how blinding white Americans’ appalling lack of color-blindness could be.

By all appearances, the blond-haired and blue-eyed Walter White was white. But like his multiracial parents, both born to formerly enslaved people, White identified as Black throughout his life. In his early years with the NAACP, he used his appearance to infiltrate Southern white communities as an undercover white man, gathering critical information on brutal lynchings from killers keen to brag about their crimes.

White’s protracted efforts to push national anti-lynching legislation through Congress forged a powerful alliance with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who pressured president Franklin Roosevelt to back these bills. White also emerged as a principal architect of the NAACP’s cumulative legal strategy to defeat Jim Crow segregation in the courts, which culminated in the watershed Brown v. Board of Education decision in the year before his death.

Yet somehow White remains little known today. As author A.J. Baime writes in his electrifying new biography, White Lies: The Double Life of Walter F. White and America’s Darkest Secret, “Soon after he died, a new generation of African American leaders emerged, and for these leaders his pale complexion was an inconvenience… His story faded into oblivion.”

In White Lies, the latest deeply informative and exquisitely paced addition to a body of work that includes Dewey Defeats Truman: The 1948 Election and the Battle for America’s Soul and The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War, Baime aims to deliver White’s astonishing story from undeserved obscurity.

This interview was conducted on Zoom.

Steve Nathans-Kelly

Among the many forgotten figures of the Civil Rights Movement, Walter White, as a “voluntary” Black man who often passed for white, is a particularly unfashionable one. So, why Walter White, and why now?

A.J. Baime

In White Lies, I say in the first sentence that many readers are going to come to this book and find events in it so shocking that they won’t believe it’s true. But it all happened. It’s absolutely shocking to me that people don’t know who this man was, what he accomplished, and how controversial he was in his era, and how he dedicated his life to creating changes in the culture of America that we still live with today.

Steve Nathans-Kelly

It’s remarkable to read these stories of Walter White traveling into towns where lynchings just happened and not only getting out alive, but also emerging with key details on the instigators and the killers. How did he manage to do that?

A.J. Baime

In the first chapter of this book, Walter witnesses the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906. Right then, he knows he can live his life as a white man or a Black man. That moment creates the foundation of his entire life’s trajectory. He decides that he’s going to live his life as a Black man, and he needs to effect change. He wants to fight for justice, pure and simple. And the way he can do that is by living this double life.

So he goes undercover as a white man, even though he identifies as Black. He can live as a white man in the white world and as a Black man in the Black world whenever he wants. That puts him in a position to create an extraordinary double persona. And he ends up sort of playing everybody. He becomes this Zelig-like character who changes according to the situation. But his goal is always justice, to destroy the color line in America, and to help to create the America that is supposed to exist according to its founding documents. He believes those things should mean something.

Steve Nathans-Kelly

Even before the Roosevelt era, White seemed to anticipate that the future of Black political power in America was in the Democratic party—the party of segregation at the time—as opposed to the so-called “party of Lincoln.” How did White come to believe and advocate something that was both prophetic and so improbable?

A.J. Baime

Walter’s undercover investigations in the first half of the book are profoundly shocking. Even when he was able to bring into the governor’s office in Arkansas and Georgia, the list of names contacts, addresses, and professions of people who committed ritualistic murders in front of huge crowds, nobody was held accountable. He realized how systemic racism was, even though they didn’t have that term back then. He knew he had to battle the systems themselves.

That’s when he threw himself into national politics, which begins the second half of the book. He saw these two morphing parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. The idea that a Black person in America should support any Democratic candidate was incredible to people in his time. And really, the linchpin was the case of Judge Parker [Republican president Herbert Hoover’s overtly racist 1930 nominee to the Supreme Court]. Walter leads the fight and actually gets this nominee defeated in Congress.

That was the moment that he realized that these political parties were realigning, and that if Black America could obtain voting rights, that Black power could hold the balance in national elections and even local elections in some places. So he becomes the most powerful force in this historic shift of Black power from the Republicans to the Democrats.

Steve Nathans-Kelly

Another fascinating thing about Walter White was his role in the Harlem Renaissance. He wasn’t Langston Hughes or Claude McKay, but he clearly made an impact on this artistic movement. How would you describe Walter White’s contribution to the Harlem Renaissance?

A.J. Baime

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Any good story has many facets. There’s the character, and there’s the world in which this character lives. One of the things I really loved about Walter’s story—and what made me want to write it so badly—is that his character illuminates this world. It illuminates the South where these racist murders are happening. His story also illuminates the Harlem Renaissance, and you get to see all those characters, and go to those parties, and drink champagne with Langston Hughes. But what I loved about Walter’s specific role in the Harlem Renaissance was that he became its unofficial press officer. His goal wasn’t just his own fame and fortune. He really worked hard to raise up people around him and bring out the genius of people like Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. He lent them money. He wrote letters on their behalf to get other people to pay attention to their brilliance. I found that really endearing.

Steve Nathans-Kelly

When it comes to writing a biography, you’re always making decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out. Different biographers make different choices. There are certain incidents that Walter White’s other biographers focus on that don’t appear at all in your book. One occurred in 1949, when White was already in hot water for divorcing his Black wife of many years and marrying a white woman, and he wrote a controversial article for Look magazine that seemed to endorse a skin-bleaching chemical that could make everyone white. How do you decide what belongs in your narrative and what doesn’t?

A.J. Baime

The Look magazine article was a real struggle for me. I made the decision to leave it out because I thought he was unfairly attacked. When I looked through his letters, it seemed to me that the editors at Look cut a big portion of what he had originally written to make it look like he was advocating something that he wasn’t. The important part of that stage of the story to me was his divorce and his re-marriage. This book is essentially about racial identity, and about a man who could be whatever he wanted at any time. His divorce is really the scandal that destroyed his reputation, and one of the major reasons why people don’t know who he is.

The broader answer to your question is, I didn’t want this book to be Kenneth Janken’s biography [Walter White: Mr. NAACP, UNC Press, 2006]. That book had been written, and done well. It’s very academic. It’s very astute. This book’s job was not to go down every rabbit hole of Walter’s life. I wanted to create this story as I saw it with this narrative arc. Every writer comes to the canvas with a vision of what they’re writing. If you’re going to do the 600-page biography of Edgar Allen Poe, like my mentor Kenneth Silverman did, that’s what you do. But that’s not what my vision of Walter’s story would be.

Steve Nathans-Kelly

Looking at your previous books, it’s not hard to guess how you got from Go Like Hell to The Arsenal of Democracy; the Fords are the common thread. Likewise, the progression from The Accidental President to Dewey Defeats Truman is pretty clear. But how do you get from Harry Truman to Walter White? How does one book project grow out of another one? And what book grows out of this one?

A.J. Baime

Every book that I’ve written grows out of the one before. Walter White appears as a minor character in the last three books I’ve written. And essentially every book that I write has a foundation in something that hit the cutting room floor from the one before it.

When you write a book, the first thing you have to do is just read and read and read and read. And when you’re reading, you come across amazing unexpected characters. You come across any number of stories that can grow like they’re in a Petri dish.

As for what’s coming next, for the first time since I started writing books, I don’t know. I’ve been wanting to write this book for 10 years. I can’t imagine a book that I could write that could be more important to me, because I think Walter’s story illuminates so much about all of the stuff that we’re dealing with today, and where it comes from. Walter’s story is really important, and people who do read this book are going to be amazed that they hadn’t heard of him.

White Lies: The Double Life of Walter F. White and America’s Darkest Secret
By A.J. Baime
Mariner Books
Published February 8, 2022


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