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White Lies

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Member Reviews

White Lies: The Double Life of Walter F White and America's Darkest Secret by AJ Baime is a well-researched and engaging biography that will inform, entertain, and also infuriate readers. To be sure, the anger (coupled with sadness) is not directed at the book but at what passed (and still passes) for American social justice.

What recollection I had of White was mostly in relation to his place in the Harlem Renaissance. I seem to recall also knowing he had been a journalist but I thought of him as with the NAACP and as a major contributor to the literary historical moment. This book not only showed me more of a well-rounded story but also one that included many chances taken.

There is a strong tendency when reading accounts from early to mid-20th century to pat ourselves on the back at how far we have come. Yet if we look closely at what is accomplished by the blatant actions of that time and the more subtle (mostly) actions of our time, we realize we haven't come nearly as far as we think. The modes of oppression are better hidden, but the final goals are still the same. Have there been improvements? Absolutely. Anywhere near what would be a very basic baseline of equality? No, most emphatically no.

The biography itself, as a biography, is excellent. The reader is able to follow along and, for the most part, understand both White and the historical moment. I think where this book moves beyond being simply a biography is the, for lack of a better term, behind the scenes look at many of the social, cultural, and political issues of the day. You become invested in both White the person and the United States as an as yet unfulfilled promise.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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4 stars
Not at all what I expected. I do feel there is a audience for this book. It is not for me. Thanks for the ARC of this book.
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I was in tears. After thirty years of working to end lynching and system racism, battling white supremacy, Walter F. White finally reached a president who had the courage to change Federal laws. President Truman, having become president upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was facing his first election. He knew he would alienate Southern Democrats by his actions. Truman was from segregated Kansas. But he was angry by the stories White told him about US soldiers returning from the battlefields to endure beatings and lynching. White talked about a soldier who was beaten and blinded because he asked a bus to stop for him to use a bathroom. “I had no idea it was as terrible as that!” the president remarked,” We’ve got to do something!” Truman’s Executive Orders created “fair employment practices” ending discrimination in the federal government. Then, he desegregated the US military. As A. J. Baime writes, “With those words, the modern civil rights movement began.” And I broke down and cried.

Walter F. White had infiltrated the South to report on lynchings and misjustice for over thirty years, even bringing cases to court. But, in the South the local KKK controlled everything–and everyone. White supremacy was a goal tightly held by Southern whites. Failing to bring justice through the local courts, White looked to the Federal government’s responsibility to protect the rights of all Americans. FDR didn’t have the political will, even if Eleanor did, even serving on the NAACP board.

White was able to insinuate himself into the Southern towns because he ‘passed’ for white with his blonde hair and blue eyes. His parents were born in slavery, his grandmother’s children may have been her master’s children. White grew up in a black neighborhood and attended black schools. He could have passed into white society. But as a child he experienced a race riot, the white citizens of his hometown threatening to burn down his family home. He choose to be black. And he made it his life’s work to defend his people.

I grew up in a bubble. My first knowledge of race came in Brownies when we were given a pamphlet about bunnys of different colors learning to get along and be friends. And then one day a woman came to the door, her son behind her, her daughter pushed forward into the meeting room. They were African American. I don’t remember any one being mean or saying anything wrong. I was intrigued, but shy. The girl only came a few times. I was sorry. And I have wondered about it for sixty years. It was years before a teacher in high school taught me about Civil Rights and I began to understand. I took note of what I saw when Dad drove us through Detroit. When the 1967 rebellion broke, my dad drove home early from Highland Park while Mom argued with prejudiced neighbors. My college had seven black students. My husband’s seminary had black students from the South and, as bookstore manager, I earned their trust. A white Southerner asked if I was afraid when they were in the store. I didn’t understand why I would be. I worked in an all black office for Upward Bound. One of the college tutors took me to a black bar for lunch. I had African American friends at work.

And I was still in a bubble.

I read books and keep learning. Every time I read about White investigating another lynching, it was another punch to the gut. I still don’t understand how any human being could do such acts.

What have I come to understand with each book, like this one, is how deep racism is in our country, how it impacts our politics and society yet. It weighs me down. Can we be redeemed?

White was not a perfect man. His work came first, his family neglected. He divorced his long suffering wife and married the woman he had long been in love with, a white woman, alienating many blacks. He became a forgotten man, and by the time of his early death Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr. were new leaders. White Lies is a moving, horrific, narrative, restoring White to his proper place as a remarkable, courageous leader.

I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
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