Who was Walter Francis White, and why was he important to the Civil Rights movement in the United States?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Walter Francis White's most significant contribution to Civil Rights for people of color in American History would be his advocacy through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP.)  White was able to use his position in the NAACP to advance specific policies that made Civil Rights a cause that occupied national importance. 

A talented student who graduated from Atlanta University, White began to establish an chapter of the NAACP in Atlanta itself.  From an early point, White recognized that the group's advocacy was essential in advancing the legal, social, and economic platform of African- Americans in a nation where segregation was the law of the land.  Attracting the attention of James Weldon Johnson, White was elevated to a national position in the organization.  As secretary assistant of the NAACP, White was able to move the organization's focus onto issues such as lynchings.  He was able to pass as White and this enabled him to work undercover within areas that were restricted:   "I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me."  While White spoke out against segregation and discrimination, he did not endorse the Nationalist position of a Marcus Garvey, and spoke passionately about the need to work within American society in order to obtain freedom within it.  White worked with President Truman to de-segregate the armed forces and helped to establish the NAACP's legal defense fund that was able to support such litigation as Brown v. Board of Education.

Walter Francis White's contribution to Civil Rights was powerful.  In being able to give guidance to African- Americans who struggled with what to do and how to live, he was able to play a formative role in the definition of millions of African- Americans.  White recognized that the future of African- Americans existed in working with the harsh contours of America, prompting change from within.  Through his advocacy in the NAACP legal defense fund, it became clear that African- Americans could seek equality in the legal system, as well.  Brown v. Board of Education was a milestone in the Civil Rights movement, something that Walter Francis White made happen. Working within a segregated America in order to facilitate an integrated one was a difficult path to blaze, and a Black man named White played an incredibly bold role in doing so.

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rachellopez | Student, Grade 12 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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White graduated Atlanta University in 1916 and initially worked in insurance. He them started a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and became a member of the organization's national team in 1918. This started his investigations about lynchings in the South. White investigated over 40 lynchings and eight race riots. This out himself in a lot of danger.

White also wrote novels, his first being The Fire in the Flint, which was about a doctor who returns to the South only to end up being lynched. His other novels that followed also covered this common issue. His writing encouraged other Harlem Renaissance writers as well.

White later became NAACP's acting executive secretary and attempted to create a federal anti-lynching law, however it did not pass. He also fought against segregation, poll taxes and other discriminatory measures. This influenced the decision in the famous court case Brown v. Board of Education.

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parama9000 | Student, Grade 11 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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He stood up for people with different skin colour and used his position in the NAACP to do so.

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