Mr White Goes To Hollywood: Walter White And The Battle For Black America

Walter White Executive Secretary of The NAACP from 1929-1955
Walter White Executive Secretary of The NAACP from 1929-1955

Before Breaking Bad there was another Walter White. An actual living breathing human being who’s impact on the United States and motion pictures in regards to the advancement of African-Americans was incalculable.

“I Am A Negro”

In his autobiography A Man Called White (1948) the author described himself as such: “My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.”

Yet White embraced his Blackness with a passion respect and love that would be his guiding light for the majority of his life.

Born to George and Madeline White on July 1, 1893, Walter was one of seven children. Given the family complexion George and Madeline could have easily chosen to pass as Caucasians.

But these two former slaves had no intention of turning away from who they were. It would have been understandable given the hostile racial climate of the time (and in many instances Negroes did pass) but George and Madeline proudly claimed their African American heritage and passed that pride to their children.

I am not white. There is nothing within my mind and heart which tempts me to think I am. Yet I realize acutely that the only characteristic which matters to either the white or the colored race—the appearance of whiteness—is mine.”

The Great Awareness 

In 1906 Clark Howell and Hoke Smith were candidates for governor of Georgia. Both men had been in the newspaper business and had mastered the fine art of pushing all the right emotional buttons in print and campaign speeches.

The buttons in this case were white people’s fears of Black people taking over the state. As the prime example Smith and Howell pointed to Atlanta’s prosperous Black Middle Class even though neither one was exactly clear why a certain segment of the population pulling themselves up by their boot straps (amid Jim Crow laws and a hostile environment built and exploited by men like Smith and Howell) was a bad thing.

It didn’t matter the fuse was lit and on September 22, 1906 after being given the usual excuse that white womanhood was under attack Atlanta exploded in a four day orgy of racial violence that left scores of people (mostly Black) dead or wounded.

Illustration of The Atlanta Race Riot

And the area that was hit the hardest? You guessed it – The one containing the homes and businesses of the Black middle class.

As he and his father armed themselves in order to defend their home from the roving mobs, Walter White then 13 years old described years later in vivid detail his coming of age.

“I knew then who I was. I was a Negro, a human being with an invisible pigmentation that marked me a person to be hunted, hanged, abused, or discriminated against, kept in poverty and ignorance, in order that those whose skin was white would have readily at hand a proof of their superiority, a proof patent and inclusive, accessible to the moron and the idiot as well as to the wise man and the genius.

Their home was spared but from then on White was on a mission.

Into The Breach

In 1917 White began working for the NAACP. For the next decade he would put himself in harms way in order to investigate lynchings, riots and police brutality that afflicted the Black community on an all too frequent basis.

The crowd reaction after a lynching. You can see the victims legs dangling at the upper right. For many in White America lynching was nothing short of a party. Walter White’s complexion allowed him to investigate scenes like this first hand,

His pigmentation allowed him to go deep deep undercover. White collected photographic evidence and actual confessions from many of the perpetrators.

It also granted him access to the mentality that was at work. After being sworn in as a deputy sheriff one of his colleagues told him, “Now you can go out and kill any Negro you see and the law will be behind you.”

White was discovered on a few occasions but never caught.


Taking Charge

In 1929 James Weldon Johnson retired as Executive Secretary of the NAACP. Johnson had done an exemplary job increasing membership and bringing national awareness to many issues that plagued the African-American community.

Yet for all of his efforts Johnson and the organization had little to show when it came to political and legislative victories.

That would change dramatically when Walter White was chosen to replace Johnson. White would turn the NAACP into a political and legal force to be reckoned with. This was demonstrated in 1930 when he spearheaded the drive to block the confirmation of Judge John J. Parker to the Supreme Court.

Parker had made no secret of his approval of racial segregation. President Herbert Hoover chose him anyway. After a close Senate vote Parker was rejected. White and the NAACP had finally won a major political battle.

Members of the NAACP. Walter White front row 4th from left would turn the organization into an undeniable force for change.

The Arts

Yet it wasn’t just politics. Like James Weldon Johnson before him Walter White had a passion for the arts and in particular the promotion of African-American talent.

A writer himself White was a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance and helped many artist gain notoriety among them were Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and operatic tenor Roland Hayes.

So it came as no surprise that eventually White would turn his attention to Hollywood.

The Dream Factory

Hollywood has always been a curious place. Isolated from the rest of the world and yet in tune to what was going on around it.

Yet the tune Hollywood was singing when it came to its portrayal of Black people looked and sounded a lot like Dixie.

A place of make believe that fired the imagination. Hollywood (1937)

While it had been there before the movies, Tinseltown became the greatest distributor of racist stereotypes the world had ever seen. None more so than D.W. Griffith’s landmark ode to slavery the confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan commonly known as Birth of A Nation.

It became a battleground for the NAACP in 1915 which sought to have the film banned. The organization did have a small amount of success but not enough to stop the Nation from becoming the first blockbuster of American movie making.

Yet Birth of A Nation was only a symptom of what ailed Hollywood and the rest of the country. Shutting down the film was not going to stop the proliferation of negative African-American imagery Hollywood seemed to delight in.

No doubt by 1942 progress had been made. Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to be nominated for and win the Academy Award.

Hattie McDaniel celebrating her Academy Award with Fay Bainter (1940). The irony was The Ambassador Hotel which hosted the Oscars had a no Blacks allowed policy.

Unfortunately her triumph as Mammy in Gone With The Wind reinforced the same old ideology. For Black Leaders of the time including Walter White, Hollywood hadn’t come nearly as far as it could or should have. The only way to get something done was to go once more into the breach.

Watch Hattie McDaniel’s Acceptance Speech

Walter At The Movies

Walter White on motion picture stereotypes

Walter White on the future of African-Americans in movies and theater

“Restriction of Negroes to roles with rolling eyes, chattering teeth, always scared of ghosts, or to portrayals of none-too-bright servants perpetuates a stereotype which is doing the Negro infinite harm.”

In February of 1942 White and Wendell Wilkie landed in Hollywood. Wilkie lost the 1940 Presidential election to FDR but remained very active in the public arena including working with the NAACP.

White was there to do two things. One was to persuade movies executives to focus more on the Black middle class and thereby move away from menial stereotypes.

Bette Davis signing autographs for soldiers. Davis owned and operated the legendary Stage Door Canteen of WWII with John Garfield. The Canteen in Davis' own words was for men and women in uniform of all races. Exactly the kind of thing Walter White talked about.
Bette Davis signing autographs for soldiers. Davis owned and operated the legendary Stage Door Canteen of WWII with John Garfield. The Canteen in Davis’ own words was for men and women in uniform of all races. Exactly the kind of thing Walter White talked about.

The second was even more ambitious. White wanted more integration in the movies. Scenes where Black people were truly part of the mosaic and not isolated off only to be left on the cutting room if necessity dictated it.

White wined and dined with the Hollywood elite and by some reports became quite starstruck.

No surprise. Hollywood since its inception had that effect on heads of state. The executive Secretary of the NAACP was not immune.

But that didn’t stop him from making his pitch. And after shuttling back and forth on a number of occasions. White sealed the deal:

“In 1942, NAACP Executive Director, Walter White, worked with politicians and studio executives to establish an ad hoc committee with the major studios to monitor the image and portrayal of African Americans on the screen.”

The agreement was trumpeted in Black media across the country. The leading Black Newspaper of the day The Pittsburgh Courier opined:

“This is one of the greatest moments this industry has ever had for doing the job we have all dreamed of doing for our country and the world.”

The Fine Print

While there were many in Hollywood that truly desired a more honest depiction of African-Americans, Hollywood as a whole was not interested.

Moguls and producers were not willing to offend their Southern market or any other market that may show their disapproval at the box office.

Daryl F. Zanuck was the only studio head willing to meet with Walter White.

But more than that many were comfortable with the way Blacks were portrayed because they had the same prejudices as the audiences they catered to.

White got to meet a few in the Hollywood power structure. Most avoided him like the plague. The ad hoc agreement was hailed as a step forward. In truth there was no leverage to enforce it.

You could point to a change of sorts with movies like Sahara and Bataan (in both these films the integration was due to war time necessity) but Star Spangled Rhythm and Follow the Boys(1944) not only showed what White was up against it also proved his point to a tee.

In Follow the Boys a troupe headed by George Raft travels around entertaining military personnel On one occasion a Black soldier comes and ask can they pay a visit to his outfit. The white entertainers are asleep Raft explains and he doesn’t want to wake them. A Black performer (Louis Jordan) wakes up and says he and his combo will go.

Raft and Jordan go in the heavy rain and do a rousing number with Raft doing some fancy stepping to the delight of the Black soldiers.

The question is why couldn’t Raft wake the others to do the same? After all the motto was for the boys. Anytime anyplace.

It was pretty obvious from the way the scene was staged that it could (and would) be cut out when it was sent to different parts of the country.

We’re all in it together…but not really. Rochester Anderson and Katherine Dunham in Star Spangled Rhythm. For all their use of talent Hollywood made sure everyone knew African-Americans were separate from the rest of the American landscape.

Star Spangled Rhythm is the same. The final scene headed by Bing Crosby is a salute to America. One guy is not buying it so in one sequence they have a White southerner answering him.

As a backdrop he references black singers humming. They are in no way part of the American landscape as they are positioned more off to the side. For that matter so are the other Black performers including Eddie Rochester Anderson.

For all of the fanfare White’s venture garnered Hollywood was not ready to give up the ghost.

Thunder From Within

Upon his initial trips to Hollywood, White had made the mistake or calculated decision to not meet with the people working in Black Hollywood.

They didn’t take it well.

Clarence Muse called him a committee of one and claimed that White wanted only a few Black skinned Negroes on the screen with the emphasis shifted to more light skinned and mulattos. He also argued that roles for Black actors and actresses were better than before.

Louise Beavers may have been speaking for many in Hollywood when she stated

”We do not have to be led by anyone taking our hands and leading us to the studios. Actors and actresses are all Dr. Jekylls and Hydes. We play a role and then we forget it. It is not a matter of degrading the Negro race”

But it was Hattie McDaniel more than anyone who took it personally. McDaniel in no uncertain terms declared war on Walter White.

More than Clarence Muse, McDaniel hammered home the racial aspects of the conflict.

“I even though of darker skin and stout must have a right to gain

Hattie McDaniel. Her personal attacks on Walter White revealed something ugly inside of her
Hattie McDaniel. Her personal attacks on Walter White revealed something ugly inside of her

my economic security also”

In reference to a smear campaign against her she let it fly:

“…the instigator of this campaign happens to be one of lighter skin than myself.”

Walter White according to McDaniel was only one eighth Black and that alone disqualified him from speaking for Black America. She also accused him of being prejudiced toward those who were dark skin.

Striking A Nerve

Black America knew the exact opposite. Walter White for all of his faults was virtually unmatched in his service to African Americans of all hues.

He had risked his life to investigate lynchings without asking if the victim was light or dark skin. He would embark on a worldwide trip to examine the conditions of Black soldiers and continue the battle for equality at home.

Muse and others were correct when they stated White didn’t know anything about the movie business.

But he knew what he saw on the screen and more than Muse, McDaniel or Black Hollywood combined he had his fingers on the pulse of Black America and understood explicitly that they wanted what he wanted. A change.

White had no desire to see dark skin actors disappear from the screen. Nor servants either. Many people that contributed to the NAACP worked menial jobs.

He was asking for a fair and more inclusive representation of Black people. That they’re not off to the side or cut out because it might offend someone or if they do menial jobs there shown as people not caricatures.

That shouldn’t have threatened people like McDaniel and Muse. Since they were quality performers couldn’t they adapt to these roles? Wasn’t Clarence Muse a good enough actor to play a lawyer and not just the help? In real life Muse had a degree in international law. Something he had earned from Dickinson College in 1911.

More talented than Hollywood would give her a chance to display. Butterfly McQueen.

What many didn’t understand about Walter White is the fact he was trying to expand their opportunities. McDaniel was a terrific singer and dancer. Why couldn’t she be the star of a musical instead of sweeping up backstage and making wisecracks?

For White all the noise coming from Black Hollywood (though to be fair quite a few Blacks working in the industry supported him) was about one thing. Protecting their livelihood.

As one actress told him if the only way she could stage a comeback was to play menial roles she would do it.

White later wrote he had never been “quite so disgusted in all my life as I was at the sheer selfishness of some of these people.” It was all about the paycheck regardless of the “effect their actions would have upon the future of Negroes as a whole.”

Right on cue McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen would have supporting roles in David O’ Selznick’s Since You Went Away (1944) a wartime drama in which they reprise their Mammy and Prissy roles as two house servants. Set in Connecticut McDaniel talks like she’s on loan from Tara and McQueen reminds us how dependably flighty she was.


Something From Nothing

White’s gambit yielded very little in the way of substance when it came to actually changing things in Hollywood. Wendell Willkie died in October of 1944 and with him White’s always fragile lifeline to Tinseltown died as well.

While he would continue the fight he was never able to come close to forging the progress he had such high hopes for in 1942. Reluctantly by the early fifties White had for all intent and purposes given up.

But no matter how slow the process things did start to change in Hollywood. White may have lost the initial battle yet he lived long enough to see the tide turn in Black America’s favor. The late forties and early fifties saw Canada Lee in Body and Soul, Juano Hernandez in Intruder in The Dust and The Breaking Point, Ruby Dee in the Tall Target and others begin the breakthrough.

Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier Raisin In The Sun. It had been a long time coming but by this time  the breakthrough regarding Hollywood’s depiction of African-Americans was underway.

Sidney Poitier would take it to new levels of humanity in the 50’s and 60’s. Poitier would win the Academy Award of 1963 for Lilies Of The Field as Homer Smith a fully drawn character that proved Blacks had star power other than the ones rooted in racial stereotypes. .

Eventually young white directors would come along and cast African Americans in roles that their forbears could only dream about.

This was the legacy of Walter White in Hollywood. As the recent dust-up over who was nominated for an Academy Award and diversity in general illustrates there is still a ways to go.

But the fact that we’re even having this conversation owes a huge debt of gratitude to Walter White and his efforts on behalf of African-Americans and truth to tell all Americans some seventy years before.

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