How one Civil Rights activist posed as a white man in order to investigate lynchings
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week.
When lynchings and other violence against Black people were a regular occurrence in the first half of the 20th century, details of many of those crimes were reported by an intrepid, mixed-race investigator with blue eyes and straight hair who could move with ease among rural white communities. His name was Walter F. White, and he worked for the NAACP in its early years, eventually becoming chief executive of the organization. As executive secretary, White developed legal strategies to fight discrimination and recruited top litigators for the effort, including future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. White also built the political power of the NAACP, becoming a regular visitor to the White House in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Truman administrations, winning important changes in federal policy.
Our guest, journalist and author A.J. Baime, tells the story of Walter White in a new biography. He explains that while White was known and admired by millions of Black people across the country in his day, his legacy and influence were in the end diminished by a secret in his personal life that would undermine his authority within the NAACP. A.J. Baime is the author of five previous books, including "Dewey Defeats Truman" and "The Accidental President." His latest is "White Lies: The Double Life of Walter F. White And America's Darkest Secrets."
A.J. Baime, welcome to FRESH AIR. Walter White grew up in Atlanta. He had blond hair and blue eyes. What do we know of his ancestors?
A J BAIME: Firstly, thank you for having me. Walter called himself, quote, "the enigma of a Black man occupying a white body." And when you see pictures of him, you see - you know, you think, well, this can't possibly be a Black man. But he did identify as Black. His parents were of the last generation of Black Americans born into enslaved families. And, you know, his complexion represented a shameful truth about our nation's history, that generations of enslaved families were born out of illicit encounters between Black women, who had no rights to their bodies, and white male slave owners, who had full legal impunity.
Now, Walter's great-grandmother on his mother's side, in fact - she birthed six children in that 1830s fathered by her owner, William Henry Harrison, who later became president of the United States. So that explains - you know, we don't have Walter's face on the cover of the book, but there's a frontispiece. So his complexion is one of the first things you see. And that sort of explains why he thought of himself as an enigma. And he realizes this early in life. And he realizes that he could live a future life as a white man, a Black man or both. And he is able to sort of do both and go back and forth throughout his life.
DAVIES: He chose to identify as Black, and he wrote later that his first introduction to the race question was in the September 1906 Atlanta race riot. What happened?
BAIME: Well, this was a harrowing event. Walter is - he grows up during a relatively progressive period in the city of Atlanta, where white people, Black people got along well. The economy was doing really well. But the Jim Crow era arrived right as he's starting to come of age. And his father is a mail carrier. And every day after school - Walter goes to a Black school and attends a Black church. And everybody knows the family in town. So nobody thinks this is odd that a kid who has - you know, looks Caucasian, goes to this Black school and this Black church. So every day after school, he goes with his father on his father's mail route.
And on this day in 1906, they knew it was coming. There had been this situation boiling up in the city, all of this racial tension that came on with - along with the Jim Crow era. And on this day in September 1906, Walter sees the outbreak of the 1906 Atlanta race riot, which was reported in newspapers all over the country, all over Europe. And he says himself that he witnesses - he's 12 years old, and he witnesses a number of people who were killed.
And on the second night of the riot, Walter's in his house with his family. And he's on the second floor looking out the window when a mob of white people carrying torches approaches the house. And he can hear the screaming. And they're talking about burning this house down because they believe that this house that the Whites are living in is too nice a house for a Black family to live in.
According to Walter's story, his father hands him a gun, and he's 12 years old, and he's looking out the window. And his father says, Walter, don't shoot until the first man puts his foot on our lawn, and then keep on shooting as long as you can. And this is the sort of foundational moment of Walter's mythology, his whole life story. And he says himself, after that night, I knew I never wanted to be a white man. I knew which side I was on.
DAVIES: It's fascinating that when he wrote about this, much later in his life, some members of his family said, wait a minute, I don't remember you with a (laughter) shotgun. What do you make of that?
BAIME: Well, that's a fascinating point. Now, as you go through the book, I mean, there's a sort of element of psychological thriller because you realize you are reading about a man who is highly ambitious, can be slightly manipulative and has this goal in his mind of changing the world. He wants to be famous. But most of all, he wants to be the man remembered as the person who got rid of the color line in America. And he's willing to do anything to achieve his goals. And one of them is to lie about this foundational moment of his childhood.
To his deathbed, he always claimed that he had the shotgun in his hand. His sisters said, you know, actually, he might have made up that part. But in the end, it sort of matters only much as you want it to matter because it is the foundation of this man's mythology and what he creates himself to be, and not just who he is, but what he creates himself to be.
DAVIES: The fact is that, you know, there was this race riot in Atlanta in 1906. We call it a race riot, but really it was white mobs attacking Black people pretty much. So Walter White - it's a relatively affluent Black family in Atlanta. He gets an education, attends Atlanta University. And there was a civil rights struggle that erupted over a proposal to eliminate seventh grade in the public schools. He gets active. And they contact the NAACP, this new organization in New York.
They send a guy down, James Weldon Johnson, who's a charismatic fellow. He is so impressed with Walter White that he invites him to move to New York to take a full-time job with the NAACP. And after some soul-searching with his family, he moves to New York. Tell us a little about the NAACP in this period. This is, what, 1918?
BAIME: He gets to New York on this freezing cold day in - early in 1918. And at the time, most Americans, a vast portion of Americans had never heard of the NAACP. It was a relatively new group. It was founded by a group of wealthy white intellectuals and Black intellectuals, notably W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson. So these are the two most respected literary and intellectual figures in Black America.
Now, the NAACP at this time - they're just beginning to grow. The organization is 15 years old. But it's small. There's a few chapters spread out around the country. And when Walter gets there, there's very little money. And what this organization is trying to do is organize Black America all over the country to begin demanding civil rights and demanding that the Bill of Rights in the Constitution should actually mean something. But really, what it was - it was an intellectual organization set on making change through activism and literature.
DAVIES: Right. And it's fascinating that the board was all white. The executive secretary was a white Irishman, John Shillady, right? But the staff was Black. Two weeks after he gets there, there's a horrific incident in Tennessee where a Black man is attacked by a mob and burned at the stake, and the organization wondered what to do about it. Somehow, the idea came up that Walter White, because he could easily pass as white, go down to Tennessee and investigate. Whose idea was this (laughter)?
BAIME: Well, of course, it was Walters. But let me set the scene for you. So Walter's - it's his 12th day in New York. So he's brand new. He wants to impress his bosses. And he has this new routine where he and James Weldon Johnson take a bus from Harlem down to the NAACP office, which was on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 14th Street. And they're on the bus and reading the newspaper. And they read about this - the torture and killing of a man named James McIlherron in a small town in Tennessee, and the article is all of, you know, one paragraph long.
And they get to the office, and they sit around, and they gather together, and they say, what are we going to do about this? And John Shillady - Irish American - he's the CEO of the NAACP at this time. And what they decide to do is what they always did, which was they're going to write a letter to the attorney general in that state. They're going to write a letter to the governor. And they're going to make those letters available to the press and send it to the White House in hopes of pressuring somebody to do something. Because when these cases happened, these lynchings happened at this time, invariably, no one would ever be charged with any crimes.
So Walter's sitting there in the office. It's his 12th day. And he says, wait a minute. What if I went down there and got the facts myself? I grew up in the South. I've been exposed to white America in the South and Black America. I can easily slip in there and get the facts posing as a white man. And everybody disagrees. They think this is too dangerous. But Walter presses on, and they relent.
And so on this spring day in 1918, Walter gets on a train, and he goes to Chattanooga, Tenn., poses as a white man so he could check into a hotel. And then the next morning, takes a train to this tiny town of Estill Springs, Tenn. And he begins his first undercover investigation - the first of over 40 of these - posing as a white man. And he makes up this persona. He says he is the traveling salesman with the, quote, "Exelento Medicine Company." He - a completely fictitious person. And he goes into the town store, and he begins this investigation. It takes him one day - one day - to uncover all of the facts of what happened to James McIlherron, which was this horrendous event rendered before a large crowd of white people.
DAVIES: Right. So he gets this information, comes back to New York, gets all the details about this horrific story. What happens? What does he do with it?
BAIME: Well, Walter writes this article in The Crisis. So the NAACP has a magazine called The Crisis. It's distributed nationally through the branches of the NAACP, and it's edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. Walter writes this story, and it causes what he calls a mini-sensation. People are shocked that he was able to get all of the facts of this story and publish them. And it riles people up.
And this is a very good thing because the NAACP is trying to recruit. And so suddenly, you have people writing into the office saying, this story is incredible. We want to help. What can we do? How can we help? Can we give money? It caused a sensation. And so Walter - you know, he realizes. This light bulb goes off in his head and in the heads of the other people working with him that we can do something with this. This is extraordinarily effective.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with A.J. Baime. His new book is "White Lies: The Double Life Of Walter F. White And America's Darkest Secret." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Our guest is author A.J. Baime. His new book is about an influential but little-known civil rights leader of the first half of the 20th century. His name was Walter White, and he led the NAACP through some crucial battles and built the organization's clout. And because he was fair-skinned and could pass as a white person, he traveled to the South dozens of times to investigate lynchings and other violence against Black people. A.J. Baime's book is called "White Lies."
There was another case where he looked at a county in Arkansas of violence against sharecroppers. In that case, his report didn't just go in the NAACP's publication. It was also published in The New York World, the newspaper owned by Joseph Pulitzer. What did that do for the NAACP's profile?
BAIME: Well, it caused even larger sensation. So what you're talking about is the Phillips County massacre. What happened was in this rural town, in this rural county in Arkansas on the Mississippi Delta, there was a group of sharecroppers who wanted to unionize. And it's important that we understand what sharecroppers were at that time.
So sharecroppers were basically Black farmers who worked these farms on land owned by white owners, wealthy white landowners. And the sharecroppers got to keep 50% of what they produced. But the landowners could charge anything for the rent, right? And they could charge anything for the equipment. So essentially, sharecropping was a way to keep the status quo in places like Phillips County as close to the slave era as possible.
So what happened was a group of sharecroppers wanted to unionize, and the landowners really didn't like this. And so one night, a group of sharecroppers were meeting in a church in a very rural place. And three white law officers showed up outside, but they did not identify themselves as law officers. And some gunfire broke out. And no one can agree who shot first, but it didn't really matter.
What happened was there was this murderous rampage throughout these rural communities in Phillips County. And Walter White went down there to investigate. He found that - according to him, in excess of 200 Black people had been killed in Phillips County due to this horrendous rioting and massacre. And what happened was the local authorities actually arrested 67 Black people, charged them with crimes, and put 12 of them on death row, even though over 200 Black people had been killed and relatively few white people at all.
So Walter goes down there. He investigates. He gets the facts. He writes this shocking report that gets newspaper headlines across the country. And the NAACP decides to gather money and try to defend these death row inmates. And that actually results in a Supreme Court case called Moore v. Dempsey, which is handed down on June 25, 1923. And Oliver Wendell Holmes, actually - he wrote the court's majority opinion, which found that if, in fact, a trial is dominated by a mob so that there is an actual interference with the course of justice, there is a departure from due process of the law. So these 12 death row inmates were released because, essentially - because - a campaign that began with the Walter White investigation.
Now, this is the end of 1919 and starts to make Walter really famous, even though he's still only a young guy. He's been at the NAACP for not even 18 months.
DAVIES: You know, you told us that that case went all the way to the Supreme Court. By and large, that was not the case, was it? In most of these cases, despite shocking information developed by Walter White and spread around the country through various newspapers, by and large, the perpetrators of this violence went scot-free. Why?
BAIME: Let me just say this. Walter conducted over 40 of these undercover investigations. Yes, he was a Black man. He identified as Black, but he looked white. So he could go undercover and get the facts in all of these cases. And he would write these articles - he wrote them in The Nation, in The New Republic, in the New York World and, of course, in The Crisis, which was the NAACP's magazine. In none of those over 40 cases, even though Walter got the facts, he was able to give documentation to attorney generals and governors of the names, the addresses and the professions of people who were involved in these murder cases. And there were zero convictions, zero indictments. And so ultimately, what happens is Walter realizes that the way to affect change in America is to gain enough power to go into politics.
DAVIES: And that becomes a new focus of the NAACP. You know, one of the best-known massacres, I guess, of this kind occurred in Tulsa, Okla., where there was this murderous assault on the community of Greenwood, which was called Black Wall Street back then. Walter White also went there, again posing as a white person, and investigated. What did he discover? What did he see?
BAIME: Tulsa is one of many, many of these types of cases. It might have been the biggest and certainly getting the most publicity today. But it all started with a man named Dick Rowland who had to go to the bathroom. He was a 19-year-old Black guy. And he went into a public building. And the interesting thing about the Jim Crow era in the South that people should understand is that in public places, there were signs all over the place - colored only or whites only. So Black people had their own bathrooms, water fountains. They were supposed to sit in a certain place in a train car. But elevators were tricky because elevators were a place where you might have Black and white in proximity. And what happened was Dick Rowland accidentally stepped on the toe of a young white woman who cried rape. And in the end, he was totally innocent. There weren't even any charges against him. But this little incident was reported in the newspaper and caused a rampage at Black Wall Street. There were two days of violence. This rampage - there were people flying around in crude airplanes over Greenwood and dropping - basically firebombs onto this neighborhood and burning 30 blocks of Tulsa to the ground.
So soon after, Walter White gets word of this, and he has to go to Tulsa. And something incredible happens when he's there. He actually gets embedded with a group of white people who are deputized to patrol and make sure there wasn't going to be a Black uprising after the event. So Walter's actually patrolling in a car with armed white men throughout Tulsa, and that's his exposure. That's how he first sees what happened to Black Wall Street. And obviously, he's shocked. There's a moment during this investigation where he's cornered by some white people who question his identity. And he's so nervous, he pulls out a cigarette. He tries to smoke it without his hand shaking because he realizes that if these people know who he is, he's not going to just - it's not just that he's not going to make it out of Tulsa alive, but he's going to be tortured horrendously. And he convinces these people that he is, in fact, this, you know, reporter from a Northern newspaper, a white man. And so they take him to patrol Tulsa. Walter goes back and writes an article.
DAVIES: This one was, I think, published in The Nation. Is that right?
BAIME: It was published in The Nation, which was a vastly read magazine, mostly by white America. And that's an important point, because he was trying - he didn't need to educate Black America about what was happening. He needed to educate white America. So he wrote this article in The Nation, which got tremendous attention and is one of the reasons - is one of the reasons - why Tulsa is on the map today as this moment in our nation's history of - you know, of shame.
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with A.J. Baime. His new book is "White Lies: The Double Life Of Walter F. White And America's Darkest Secret." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest is journalist and author A.J. Baime. His latest book is about Walter F. White, an influential though little-remembered leader of the NAACP in the first half of the 20th century. White had a major impact on civil rights litigation and built the NAACP into a powerful political force during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Truman administrations. And because White had fair skin and straight hair and was often assumed to be white, he traveled through the South dozens of times to investigate lynchings and other violence against Black people. A.J. Baime's book is "White Lies: The Double Life Of Walter F. White And America's Darkest Secret."
So Walter White had come to New York to join the NAACP in 1918 at the age of - what? - 25 or so? By 1929, he is, in effect, the de facto leader of this growing national organization. He was acting secretary but then got the full-time job. And I think what's remarkable is that he was a real strategic thinker. And he realized that they weren't going to stop this, you know, by exposing facts and asking local authorities to prosecute. That wasn't going to happen. And he said, you know, Black Americans needed real political power. And he began talking about Black Americans reconsidering their unquestioned loyalty to the Republican Party, because he felt that the Republican Party had ignored them. And one of the interesting things that he did was got the organization involved in a Supreme Court nomination fight in 1930. This happens nowadays. But he thought this was an important battle to fight. And tell us what happened.
BAIME: So Walter opens up his newspaper one day. And he's just become the leader of the NAACP. He's acting secretary in 1929. And in 1930, Herbert Hoover decides that he's going to try to appoint this North Carolina judge, federal judge, to the Supreme Court to fill a vacant seat. Walter does a little bit of research. And he finds that at one point, this judge ran for governor. And when he did so, he made some surprisingly racist statements. And I can read them to you. This judge, Parker - his name is Parker, John J. Parker. He said, the participation of the negro in politics is a source of evil and danger to both races and is not desired by the wise men in either race. The judge also said at one point, if I should be elected governor of North Carolina and find that my election was due to one negro vote, I would immediately resign my office. So Walter decides the first thing he's going to do as head of the NAACP is to fight against this confirmation. And so he launches a nationwide fight. No Supreme Court pick by a president had been blocked in the entire 20th century. So when this happens in 1930, it makes news. And so Walter leads this fight to block the confirmation of Judge Parker. And he wins. And that's the beginning of his role as chief executive of the NAACP.
DAVIES: Yeah. It was just remarkable that that happened. And then afterward, there was a senator in Ohio who had - I guess Roscoe McCulloch was his name - who had voted to put Judge Parker on the bench despite these racist statements. And he mobilized the NAACP to defeat this Republican senator for reelection - in effect, kind of making the point that you're not going to ignore our interests and simply be assured reelection. It worked.
BAIME: It worked. Walter and the NAACP led a fight to defeat any, any - anyone in Congress who supported the confirmation of Judge Parker. So this went on for years. And what he was doing, wisely, politically, was saying, listen; just because you're Republican doesn't mean Black people are going to vote for you. You have to - you know, if you want the Black vote, which is becoming more and more powerful during this time, you need to step up and meet some of our demands.
DAVIES: You know, the other part of the story is that Walter White, you know, he built the organization, the NAACP, had many, many more chapters around the country, began raising money for important litigation - for, you know, equal rights to attend schools, for voting rights in some cases, with some victories. And he became a player in national politics. He developed a relationship with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and especially with his wife, Eleanor, who actually entered the board of the NAACP. He was unable to get Roosevelt to support an anti-lynching bill. But there's another moment that you describe when the United States had entered World War II. And he wanted Roosevelt to desegregate the military, had a meeting with him. What happened?
BAIME: Well, this is a fascinating meeting. Firstly, there were a few of them. But there's one in particular that we're talking about. When the war began and it became clear that the United States was going to get involved in World War II, two things happened. Obviously, we had a massive ramp up of the military. But we also had a massive ramp up of industry. We're coming out of the Great Depression. Franklin Delano Roosevelt creates this thing called the arsenal of democracy. His idea is to join the military, politics and private industry into this one massive military force. And that's the only way we're going to defeat Hitler, right? And so tremendous amounts of money are going into the military and into industry with government contracts. And Walter White decides, this is a really important opportunity. Nothing can do more to erase the color line in America than desegregation of the military. So he's trying to convince Roosevelt to do that. The other thing is he's trying to convince Roosevelt to have a fair practice, like, basically, fair employment. So if the government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on factories to turn out tanks and planes, those factories should be hiring not just white people. And so he begins this pressure campaign on the White House.
DAVIES: Roosevelt was not willing to desegregate the military. But Walter White and the NAACP had another idea, which was to end discrimination in civilian employment among defense industries, which were really gearing up because of the war effort. And they set upon a tactic which was quite effective. Tell us about this.
BAIME: Walter showed up at the White House with a man named A. Philip Randolph, very influential Black leader at this time. And they come to the president with this idea of a march on Washington. And they say they're going to have 100,000 Black people march on Washington, demanding that the administration do something about employment. They're coming out of the Depression. People are hurting. They're desperate for jobs. Millions of jobs are being created through the defense industry. And Walter and A. Philip Randolph demand that Roosevelt do something about this, that, you know, he put some executive order or law in - you know, on the books saying, if the federal government is going to spend millions and millions of dollars hiring people that they can't just hire all white people. And Roosevelt is terrified of this idea, of this march on Washington. He thinks there could be a race riot in front of the gates of the White House. He thinks that he could lose any hope of ever getting the Black vote during the next election.
And so he has this dramatic meeting. He turns to Philip Randolph and says, Philip, how many people do you plan to bring? And Randolph says, 100,000, Mr. President. Roosevelt turns to Walter and he says, Walter, how many people will march? And Walter's eyes (unintelligible) blank. He said, 100,000, Mr. President. And FDR is so unnerved, that six days later, he signs Executive Order 8802, which, quote, "provides for the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries." And this is a massive victory for Walter. This is the first time ever that the government had a program saying, yes, we are required to not just hire white people.
DAVIES: And was it effective? Did Blacks get jobs, as you know, welders and riveters and factory floor jobs?
BAIME: It was extraordinarily effective in basically integrating the assembly lines during World War II. It didn't always go well, but the results were extremely important, and a huge victory for Walter, who was at this time building his national political platform.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. We are speaking with author A.J. Baime. His new book is "White Lies: The Double Life Of Walter F. White And America's Darkest Secret." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Our guest is author A.J. Baime. His book is about an influential but little-known civil rights leader in the first half of the 20th century named Walter White. He led the NAACP through some crucial battles and built the organization's political clout. And because he was fair-skinned and could pass as a white person, he traveled to the South dozens of times to investigate lynchings and other violence against black people. A.J. Baime's book is called "White Lies."
Walter White was also very effective with Harry Truman, who became president after Roosevelt died in 1945. Tell us a little bit about Truman and why it's a little surprising that he had such an open mind towards Walter's appeals.
BAIME: Well, you're seizing on a really fascinating point. Harry Truman came into office on April 12, 1945, at the climactic moment of World War II. Very few people knew anything about him. He was very much a mystery. I wrote a whole book about this called "The Accidental President." People were shocked because they thought after all of these years with Roosevelt, there were some people in the military who were - couldn't even remember a time in their life when FDR hadn't been president, the first four-term president. And when he dies on April 12, 1945, Truman comes into the office. And he's from Missouri. He's from a border state. Both of his parents supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. Both of his parents came from slaveholding families. People who knew Truman knew that he might use the N-word. And so a lot of the Southern Democrats who were, you know, white supremacists believed they had their guy with Truman, that he was going to support them. And Truman proved them vastly wrong. And part of that was his relationship that he formed with Walter White.
DAVIES: White had a meeting with Truman, and he brought up the case of - a terrible case of a Black soldier who was returning from his duty in World War II to a South Carolina town, got involved in a verbal altercation with the bus driver about using the bathroom, ends up getting attacked by some local law enforcement and blinded by a sheriff who beat him with a baton. This wasn't the only incident of returning Black soldiers suffering violence. It's interesting that Walter managed to get Orson Welles, who had a Sunday night radio show, to talk about this. So he got attention to it. But he brings this and other cases to the Oval Office with Harry Truman. How does Truman react?
BAIME: Well, Truman is shocked. And this is a very dramatic meeting. The NAACP, Walter White, they knew at the end of World War II - you had hundreds of thousands of Black soldiers who had fought in the war, and they weren't going to come home and just be OK with the Jim Crow South. They weren't going to come home after fighting for their country and be told that they can't sit next to a white woman or a bus, that they could only use certain bathrooms to drink from certain water fountains. And Walter knew that a lot of white America was going to resist and that there was going to be a crisis - and, in fact, there was.
And Isaac Woodard was the guy you're talking about. And his case was the - became the cause celebre, became the sort of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter case of that era. And right after it happens, and before this whole media campaign about Isaac Woodard, Walter White goes to the White House, and he tells Harry Truman the story of Isaac Woodard, who had been blinded while in a fight with a white policeman while still wearing his Army uniform, a decorated soldier. And Truman is shocked. And the very next day, Truman writes a letter to the attorney general, Tom Clark of Texas, and says, we have to do something about this. And really, that document, to me, is the beginning of the civil rights movement from within the White House, in mainstream politics.
DAVIES: Right. He later asks Truman to speak at the NAACP convention in 1947. And we should say this is time when Truman is about to run for reelection and needs the support of Southern whites. Despite that, well, what does he say when Walter White says will you speak at our convention?
BAIME: Walter has this meeting with Truman, and he asked Truman to address the NAACP in person. Walter believes, and he uses these words, that if Truman agrees to do this, it's political suicide. This is 1947. Already, nobody believes that Truman has any shot at winning the 1948 election. And if he comes out in support of any civil rights programs, he's going to shatter the Democratic Party, his own party, because the solid - so-called Solid South is going to ditch him. And he's going to be just - his - this - it would be political suicide. Shockingly, Truman agrees to do this. And historians have always argued, you know, why did Truman come out and get behind civil rights the way he did? He becomes the first president to campaign in the spiritual home of Black America in Harlem, becomes the first president to address the NAACP in person at this massive meeting on the National Mall by the - on the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. And indeed, Truman is the one who desegregates the military, and he goes out, and he wins the 1948 election, getting a huge portion of the Black vote in the process.
DAVIES: So what's the answer why Truman did - why Truman was the guy that did this?
BAIME: Was it a political move? - because, you know, it was a moving target at the time. And I think the answer is really to be found in a letter that Truman wrote to Walter White where he says, it's my moral duty as the president of the United States to make sure that if Black soldiers are returning from war and they're beaten here in America, that the federal government has an obligation to do something, and that the Bill of Rights - the 14th Amendment, the 15th Amendment - they should actually mean something, and that the documents that are the spine of our country should mean something. And so he goes out and, you know, becomes the first civil rights president for moral reasons.
DAVIES: And I imagine the persuasiveness of Walter White figures in, too?
BAIME: Without a doubt, without a doubt. The two men saw eye to eye, and they remained friends for the rest of their lives, even after Truman was out of office.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We need to take another break here. We are speaking with A.J. Baime. His new book is "White Lies: The Double Life Of Walter F. White And America's Darkest Secret." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with journalist and author A.J. Baime. His new book is about an influential but little-known civil rights leader in the first half of the 20th century named Walter White. He led the NAACP through some of its crucial battles and built the organization's clout. And because he could pass as a white person, he traveled to the South several times to investigate lynchings and other violence against Black people. A.J. Baime's book is called "White Lies."
So Walter White achieved a lot as head of the NAACP - built its national clout, built this relationship with the White House, and got some things done. But in his later years, events in his private life and marriage would affect his standing in the movement and his legacy. You know, just tell us what happened here.
BAIME: It actually began for Walter at a party in the late 1920s when he was still a young man. Now, Walter identifies as a Black man, and he really - by the - you know, by the late 1930s, he's literally the face of Black power. He is - and I'm quoting a newspaper article about him. "As a go-getter, Mr. White's record is unparalleled in Negro life." That was basically - not basically. That was his reputation at the time - unquestioned in the - starting in the late 1930s all the way to his death.
Now, Walter had a secret. He had a Black wife, and his children were Black. But he had a loveless marriage, and he was desperately in love with a woman named Poppy Cannon. And he was, you know, a public figure. He was married. And she was white. And so for many years, he struggled with this love, knowing that if it was exposed, his reputation would be utterly destroyed. So for most of those years, he had no relationship and not even any contact with them - with her.
There's this moment where during World War II, he goes overseas to find out how democracy is functioning on the front line. And he's in a military plane, and it crashes. And he nearly dies. And he has this what you might call a come-to-Jesus moment where he knows he's getting older, and he wants to be in love. And he decides that he's going to do something about it. And he knows that when the world finds out about this, he's going to be - his reputation will be shattered.
DAVIES: It wasn't handled particularly well from a communications point of view. I mean, life is messy. And we saw sort of that had a heart attack in 1947, another one in 1948. And he eventually tells his wife, Gladys - she's on her way to Mexico - and that she can get a divorce there. And it sort of comes out that he has had a quiet marriage with Poppy Cannon in Manhattan. How did the NAACP react? How did Black Americans across the country - how did his family react to this union?
BAIME: He knew going into this it wasn't going to go well, so he took a leave of absence from the NAACP. He at this time, had been chief executive for almost two decades. And he goes on this around-the-world radio news program tour without telling anyone that he obtained a divorce and that he had married this woman in a private ceremony.
So while he's traveling abroad, this story explodes. It becomes a gossip sensation, headlines all over the place. And people are very, very upset. And in my research, I've really dug into all of the letters that were written between members of the NAACP leadership and powerful Black Americans what their opinion was of this move. And without a doubt, they were devastated. Eleanor Roosevelt was on the board of the NAACP. She resigned. He eventually - Walter convinced her to rescind her resignation.
But essentially, Walter's leadership was destroyed. His reputation was destroyed. His children refused to speak to him. And they never spoke to him again. His son even dropped the name White from the end of his name because he didn't want to be associated with his father because he was so hurt by what his father did. And that's one of the main reasons why people don't know who Walter White is today.
DAVIES: It's interesting, you know, that - you quote a couple of letters from two of Walter White's sisters. And it wasn't just the immorality of it. It wasn't just betraying Gladys, his wife. It had to do with the way people see Black men and their relationship with white women and how that played into American racism, didn't it?
BAIME: It did, because all of these times where Walter was testifying on the floor of Congress for a federal antilynch law, you had this white Southern senator saying, Black men are after our white women, and so lynching should be OK. You know, he - Walter knew that he had - was setting himself up to be brutally attacked by all of his enemies, who throughout his life said, well - that this is going to happen. And it did. And, yes, his family - the letters that his sisters wrote to him were just so devastating.
But really, what they came down to - and it was expressed best by his sisters, who were condemning him - they said, you know, for all of these years, you have been the face of Black America. You have been the person whose picture is, you know, hung on these cracked mirrors in, you know, homes all over the country. You are the NAACP. You are hope for all of these people. And you have abandoned them. And again, you know, many people believe this.
DAVIES: Is that why we don't know who Walter White is today, do you think?
BAIME: Yeah. There are two reasons why. One is because, yes, he had the scandal at the end of his life - really shattered his reputation, destroyed his base of power. And the other reason is, really, he died in 1955, right at the same year of the Montgomery bus boycott, right at the very year where Martin Luther King Jr. came on the scene as a national political figure but also right at the same time that television cameras arrived. And there was no way this new generation of Black civil rights leader was going to have a man with white skin, you know, be the foundation, the face of their movement. That wasn't going to happen. And so in remarkable speed after Walter's death in 1955, of not one but numerous heart attacks, he - his legacy disappeared from the history books and from the American scene.
DAVIES: You know, there's a lot of discussion these days in news organizations about diversity and a sense of the importance of having journalists of color to tell stories because their own life experience informs their reporting in a way that is really important. You know, you're a white guy researching and telling this story. I wonder if you think that matters in any way or whether you encountered any reluctance from sources to be informative or candid maybe because you're white.
BAIME: It did not inform any sources or anything like that. I was concerned throughout the writing of this process 'cause it took years. And when I say I had to roll up my sleeves - I mean, this book was a tremendous amount of work. And it was a tremendous emotional journey - at times, really painful. And I worried throughout the writing of it, the book would come out and I would be attacked to writing a story about this because I was a white guy.
And so your question is important. That hasn't happened. And I think one of the reasons why is because this is a story of a man who lived a double life as white and Black - was sometimes lauded for and sometimes criticized for it. And that's something I had to be very, very careful with throughout the writing of it. And I understood that I might get dinged about it, and that's OK.
DAVIES: Well, A.J. Baime, thanks so much for speaking with us and sharing the story.
BAIME: It's been a pleasure to be with you. Thank you.
DAVIES: A.J. Baime's new book is "White Lies: The Double Life Of Walter F. White And America's Darkest Secret." A national antilynching bill, one of the unmet goals of the NAACP under White's leadership, was finally enacted by Congress earlier this month and was signed yesterday by President Biden.
On tomorrow's show, how Ukraine is fighting the digital war against Russia. We'll speak with Time Magazine's Vera Bergengruen. She says Ukraine's 31-year-old cyberchief is recruiting a citizen IT force to help blunt Russian disinformation, galvanize international support and get tech companies to block services in Russia. I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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