"My father and I were driving toward a mail box at the corner of Peachtree and Houston Streets when there came from nearby Pryor Street a roar . . . which sent a sensation of mingled fear and excitement coursing through my body . . . We saw a lame Negro bootblack from Herndon's barber shop pathetically trying to outrun a mob of whites. Less than a hundred yards from us the chase ended. We saw clubs and fists descending to the accompaniment of savage shouting and cursing. Suddenly a voice cried: 'There goes another nigger!' Its work done, the mob went after new prey. The body with the withered foot lay dead in a pool of blood on the street."
For 13-year-old Walter Francis White, the Atlanta race riots of 1906 (described later in his autobiography), were more than a horrifying sight. But for the fact that he was blond and pink-cheeked, White might have been the victim of the mob himself. Yet from that dreadful day on, he elected to remain, fiercely and proudly, a member of the Negro race.*
In 1893, the year White was born on the outskirts of Atlanta's Darktown, 152 U.S. citizens, mostly Negroes, were murdered by mobs. In his lifetime, 3,017 men and women were lynched in the U.S., but when Walter White died of a heart attack last week, there had been no lynchings for four years. "If there's any single monument to Walter," said Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, "it's the record wiped clean of lynchings." The Boys Were Looking. Because of his appearance, White was peculiarly equipped to fight racial segregation. Never in his lifetime was he spotted by a stranger as a Negro. After he joined the NAACP in 1918, he became a courageous investigator of lynchings and mob violence. Once, during a race riot in Chicago, White was shot at by a Negro who thought he was white.
After the gruesome race riot at Elaine, Ark. in 1919, when more than 200 Negroes and three white men were killed, White made his usual trip south. He interviewed Charles H. Brough, the unsuspecting governor of Arkansas, and in the midst of his on-the-spot investigation, he learned that a mob had been tipped off and was looking for him. White prudently caught the first train for Memphis, although the conductor urged him to stay and see the fun. "There's a damned yellow nigger down here passing for white," he said, "and the boys are going to get him."
A quarter of a century ago White became the executive secretary of the NAACP, and a dogged lobbyist in Washington. He has since had a major hand in virtually every civil-rights law enacted. He sternly waved away the Communist Party help, and denounced Communists as exploiters of the Negro.
A Champion Is Mourned. White was intense and fanatical, and he often made enemies, but he came as close as any man since Booker T. Washington to being a leader of his chosen people. He willingly bucked public opinion, Negro and white, when he thought he was right. After his first wife divorced him, in 1949, White married Poppy Cannon, a white woman who was born in South Africa. He was widely criticized, and the NAACP decided to keep him as secretary only after a 3½hour debate, by a vote of 23 to 12.