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White Turned Rights Organization into Fierce Minority Advocate

Not many Americans today know the name Walter White. But he played a pivotal role in the struggle for civil rights as the director the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for 24 years, beginning in 1931.

"Walter White was a man who looked white -- very light-skinned," Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington points out. "So he was able to go into the South and not be seen as a black person. There are many stories where he actually went into the South and was able to get information about a lynching, or about segregation, in a way that a black person couldn't.

"And he used the might of the NAACP to begin to sue in court or to organize boycotts. You could go to the NAACP, saying, 'My boss mistreated me.' The NAACP might follow up. Or you could say, 'There's been horrible lynchings.' The NAACP would investigate."

Walter White delivered the following remarks in 1947 at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, as he was introducing President Harry Truman.

"Throughout history," White said, "bigots have grown powerful by first attacking the most vulnerable minority in a nation and then proceeding to attack others, until liberty was destroyed for everybody, including the bigots. Racist bigots are attempting to set race against race, creed against creed, class against class in America today. They must not, they will not, be permitted to succeed. But we also know that human freedom must be in the hearts of men and not solely on paper. To this high objective, we today rededicate our every energy."

"Right after World War II, many black Americans thought that because they had fought for freedom that freedom would come to them in the United States," Lonnie Bunch notes. "And yet there was a rise of the Dixiecrats, southern politicians who wanted to ensure that blacks remained unequal, uneducated, ill-informed. And what you find with this speech from Walter White is that the mistreatment of all -- be you black, be you immigrant, be you of a different religion -- is counter to the American notions of who we are."

This is one of a series of reports on Say it Plain, a collection of excerpts from 32 memorable speeches by notable African-Americans.