Walter White: The Dilemma of Black Identity in America

Overview

The day Walter White was buried in 1955 the New York Times called him "the nearest approach to a national leader of American Negroes since Booker T. Washington." For more than two decades, White, as secretary of the NAACP, was perhaps the nation's most visible and most powerful African-American leader. He won passage of a federal anti-lynching law, hosted one of the premier salons of the Harlem Renaissance, created the legal strategy that led to Brown v. Board of Education, and initiated the campaign demanding ...

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Walter White: The Dilemma of Black Identity in America

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Overview

The day Walter White was buried in 1955 the New York Times called him "the nearest approach to a national leader of American Negroes since Booker T. Washington." For more than two decades, White, as secretary of the NAACP, was perhaps the nation's most visible and most powerful African-American leader. He won passage of a federal anti-lynching law, hosted one of the premier salons of the Harlem Renaissance, created the legal strategy that led to Brown v. Board of Education, and initiated the campaign demanding that Hollywood give better roles to black actors. Driven by ambitions for himself and his people, he offered his entire life to the advancement of civil rights in America.

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Editorial Reviews

CHOICE
A useful contribution to the literature on civil rights, racial identity, and modern U.S. history.
The Journal of African American History
Offers a story about how certain characteristics, actions, and philosophies define a person's 'blackness' or 'whiteness.'
The Journal of Southern History
Thomas Dyja has written a succinct, evenhanded, and timely analysis of the life and legacy of the blond, blue-eyed public face of the NAACP between 1931 and 1955. . . . Well researched and well written, Dyja's book makes a major contribution to civil rights scholarship, is accessible to a general audience, and should be mandatory reading for anyone born after 1954.
Kenneth Robert Janken
In prose that moves effortlessly across the page, Thomas Dyja captures the energy and accomplishments of Walter White, one of the most important and effective African American leaders of the last century.
Manfred Berg
Walter White, the longtime executive secretary of the NAACP, is one of the most complex and yet fascinating characters of the black freedom struggle. While many historians have dismissed White as an opportunistic self-promoter, Thomas Dyja's elegantly written biography provides the reader with an empathetic and judicious portrait of a man who was passionately devoted to the cause of racial advancement but as an individual aspired to move beyond the limitations of race.
Ted Widmer
Thomas Dyja’s gripping biography of Walter White has restored an essential American life. With impeccable research, acute sensitivity and literary grace, Dyja has restored one of the most important links in the long chain of events and causes that brought Americans, at long last, into the the bright sunshine of civil and human rights.
Devin Fergus
Dyja's crisply-written biography is a fascinating, concise history of arguably the most effective civil rights leader of his time. Dyjas's timely and nimble effort identifies the gap between one person's proximity to power and a community's failure to ever actualize it—a dilemma that continues to plague civil rights leaders and by extension black America today. As the inaugural text for this new series, Walter White is an auspicious beginning for The Library of African American Biography, which will crucially introduce and familiarize future generations of readers to the most important people of the African American experience.
The Journal Of Southern History
Thomas Dyja has written a succinct, evenhanded, and timely analysis of the life and legacy of the blond, blue-eyed public face of the NAACP between 1931 and 1955. . . . Well researched and well written, Dyja's book makes a major contribution to civil rights scholarship, is accessible to a general audience, and should be mandatory reading for anyone born after 1954.
The Sewanee Review
Clearly organized and crisply written. . . . Dyja's study is designed to give Walter White's reputation a renewed life, so that a troubled man and his troubled career can get the attention and the respect they deserve.
Booklist
Dyja brings new light to an eclipsed but hugely important figure in the civil rights struggle.
Publishers Weekly

Once known as "Mr. NAACP," Walter White and his contributions to African-American history have been lost in the margins of memory. Dyja (The Moon in Our Hands) offers a straightforward biography of the light-skinned, blue-eyed, blond-haired black man who served as executive secretary of the NAACP for the "complex and pivotal decades" from 1931 to 1955. White's daring made him an unparalleled investigator into the horrendous violence and systematic peonage that characterized the decades before WWII. His accomplishments were history making: desegregation of the armed forces owes a debt to his investigations into the treatment of black soldiers in Europe and the Pacific; the Legal Defense Fund owes much to White's focus on litigation. Usefully but often controversially, this "man of few theories and many tactics, remained squarely, sanely and consistently down the middle for almost four decades" and kept the NAACP along that same path. As in White's life, the NAACP holds the center, but Dyja attends to White's place as a writer of the Harlem Renaissance and to his more intimate life, including his "last act"-White's marriage to a white woman that, according to the author, "cost him his place in history." (Nov.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Wall Street Journal
Excellent [book] ... White succeeded in moving the struggle for equal rights forward. An inveterate optimist, he kept his 'eyes on the prize,' the prize being a society of equal opportunity for all. That Barack Obama [competed] for the presidency as a mainstream politician in a campaign that [rose] beyond appeals to race is a tribute to Walter White's efforts and an emblem of his underappreciated legacy to American democracy.
Kirkus Reviews
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. Hiscrowning 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.
Journal Of African American History
Offers a story about how certain characteristics, actions, and philosophies define a person's 'blackness' or 'whiteness.'
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Thomas Dyja

Thomas Dyja is the author of novels (Play for a Kingdom, which won the Casey Award in 1998 for the best baseball book of the year; Meet John Trow, and The Moon in Our Hands), nonfiction (Only Connect, with Dr. Rudy Crew, about reforming our schools), and children's books, and has edited a number of books of biography. A graduate of Columbia University, he lives in New York City.

Biography

Thomas Dyja, has worked as a book editor and literary agent. He is the author of the award-winning novel Play for a Kingdom, as well as Meet John Trow and The Moon in Our Hand. Dyja presently lives in New York City with his wife and two children.
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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 31, 1962
    2. Place of Birth:
      Chicago, Illinois
    1. Education:
      B.A in English, Columbia University

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: A World of His Own
Chapter 2: The Life Insurance Temperament
Chapter 3: Undercover Against Lynching
Chapter 4: At the Center of the Harlem Renaissance
Chapter 5: Conflict, Control, and the Making of Mr. NAACP
Chapter 6: Fighting on All Fronts
Chapter 7: "I am white and I am black"

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