Which Way the NAACP: On AJ Baime’s “White Lies” and Tomiko Brown-Nagin’s “Civil Rights Queen”

IN 1957, THE WRITER Zora Neale Hurston wrote a philosophically scathing article, “Which Way the NAACP?” She asked:

Beneath the sound and fury of the drive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to integrate the schools for the South, what is the real intent? Is it conceived that a Negro child is “advanced” by sitting in the same class-room with White children, and if so, how and why? Or is the push a determined attempted jail-break from the imaginary cage of race on a national scale?

Hurston, like so many Black Midwesterners and Southerners whose viewpoints were undocumented, was leery of Brown v. Board of Education. As she observed, “So it has to be believed that mere physical contact is advancement in itself. The inferiority complex which brought forth the ‘Tragedy of Color’ doctrine has to enter in.”

Hurston was not the first Black American to decry the type of racial integrationist philosophy that undergirded the NAACP. Her criticisms reflected sentiments that many working-class and white-collar Black people felt. Though a champion of human rights, the NAACP was from its inception a reformist organization in the struggle to transform the United States’ lineage as a white imperial republic. The NAACP was never revolutionary (though racist Southern politicians claimed otherwise), and it was never intended to be. It was an organization firmly rooted in bourgeois norms following its immediate predecessor the Niagara Movement.

The NAACP was instead founded upon the mores of Victorian culture, with a base of steadfast church attendees and high school and college graduates. These were the persons who identified with the country’s ruling class behaviorly in order to earn political acceptance through the “politics of respectability,” a hackneyed term describing the politics of every outside group trying to fit inside parameters of the 19th-century capitalist order. In 1909, when the NAACP was founded, the politics of respectability was attached to the politics of “colorism,” meaning biracial people became the organization’s spokespersons amid a much vaster ebony working class.

This is why Hurston tartly writes, “[L]et us examine another word in the title of the NAACP. The choice of ‘Colored’ instead of the more universal term Negro is significant. To non-Negro, and even to the uninformed among us, Colored and Negro are synonymous, but that is a kind of slurring over.” Hurston, who parodied Marcus Garvey, nevertheless appreciated his criticism regarding Du Bois’s staff at The Crisis, which had very few identifiable “Negroes.” Despite Hurston’s criticism, the NAACP became the most storied organization that Black America built in city after city.

Yet there have been few full institutional histories, except for Langston Hughes’s heroic narrative Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACPpublished in 1962, and historian Patricia Sullivan’s 2009 critical evaluation Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement. Dimensions of the NAACP’s histories are also exposed via various autobiographies and biographies of its epic leaders and influencers — Ella Baker, WEB Du Bois, Charles Hamilton Houston, James Weldon Johnson, Thurgood Marshall, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

To this approach we add two more biographies. the first, White Lies: The Double Life of Walter F. White and America’s Darkest Secret by journalist AJ Baime, revives the memory of NAACP executive director Walter White, especially his advocacy to outlaw lynchings. Though his family’s DNA admixture made him physically a white man, White’s heroism was in refusing to “pass,” as would happen to fellow Atlanta University graduate and Du Bois mentee Harry Pace. White’s writing talents and physical appearance made him an asset to the multitalented James Weldon Johnson, who took command of organizing the NAACP and invited White to join him in New York City.

Early in his career, White volunteered to be an undercover reporter covering the details and aftermath of lynchings for Black papers like the Baltimore Afro-American, Chicago Defender, The Crisisand New York’s legendary newspapers the New York Heraldthe New York Evening Post, The New York Timesand the New York World. These investigations were high-stakes, and the psychic toll they took on White was tremendous. The work of building the NAACP was thankless, and many died trying to keep the poorly funded advocacy organization intact. His marriage to Gladys Powell, whom the poet Langston Hughes described as one of the most beautiful women in Harlem, became unhappy as he spent endless days working.

One of the biggest faults in Baime’s biography is his limited understanding of social class dynamics in Black America. The NAACP, even before it had a legal strategy, represented the interests of the Black middle class more than it did the Black poor. Nothing exposed the class bias within the organization like the 1931 Scottsboro Boys case, in which nine Black teens and young men, who were on a freight train searching for work, were falsely accused of raping two white women. The sexual and class politics were too much for the NAACP to navigate, and feared leadership being associated with the Communist Party. Safe mainstream politics trumped advocacy, and the NAACP withdrew from the case.

This is not to take away from what White accomplished in his role leading the NAACP. He savvily aligned with Roosevelt’s Democratic coalition and made behind-the-scenes overtures to get President Harry S. Truman to speak out on civil rights. But American racial politics have always been tied to labor, criminal justice, and sexuality. And White stayed clear of those issues in order to keep the NAACP in the mainstream of Roosevelt’s liberal coalition. The price of that ticket was to abandon the Black poor and working class.

But where White pulled back, Constance Baker Motley forged forward. Tomiko Brown-Nagin’s Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality is a gripping narrative of a jurist negotiating a Mad Men–like world where Black women entering the fields of academia, law, medicine, or politics faced a racialized sexism in their own communities.

Motley is the standard bearer for the newest justice on the United States Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson, and so many Black women in the legal profession. Her consummate professionalism as a lawyer kept local leaders from false imprisonment and pushed the ball forward in terms of access to then–all-white Southern universities. As a trial lawyer, Motley was on par with her mentor Thurgood Marshall.

She grew up through the Great Depression in a large Caribbean family who emigrated from the island of Nevis. The Baker family lived in the shadow of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where her father worked as a chef. With immigrant drive, support from mentors, and help from a local philanthropist, Motley earned her bachelor’s degree from New York University and her law degree from Columbia University.

Like every professional woman of her generation, she could not be hired in a major law firm. She started her career as a law clerk for Marshall, enduring sexual harassment as the revered justice checked out her legs on a ladder. But her fiery advocacy soon earned her the moniker “Civil Rights Queen,” and her superb analytical skills and preparation would carry her through her short-lived political career and onto the federal bench. Still, racism and sexism were hellhounds. Motley would be grilled and investigated unrelentingly by white supremacist Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And, though deserving, Motley would never be appointed to the Federal Court of Appeals.

This is an accomplished biography, with a few faults. Brown-Nagin demonstrates, using James Baldwin’s inestimable words, Motley’s “price of the ticket.” The first half richly balances Motley’s inner life, family, and profession. But as she becomes a judge, we lose the personal to an analysis of her rulings, which falls short intellectually. What did she read? Whose legal scholarship influences her? Did she have a philosophy of rights? Did she possess a philosophy on racial integration as Zora Neale Hurston so deftly critiqued? We don’t really get to know.

Walter White and Constance Baker Motley had symbiotic relationships with the NAACP. They built the organization, and the organization allowed them to be part of an institutional vehicle to develop their respective efforts towards an inclusive American democracy. Each paid a heavy price for their advocacy. They were threatening, saw family and friends die tragically, and narrowly escaped death themselves. Though both were resilient individuals, the psychic cost and grief work were enormous. This is why we must remember these giants and the organization that propelled them into history. Baime and Brown-Nagin’s new biographies bear powerful witness to White and Motley’s tireless advocacy — and the high cost that is continually incurred in advocating for a multiracial democracy.

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Randal Maurice Jelks is an author, a documentary film producer, and a professor at the University of Kansas. His latest book is Letters to Martin: Meditations on Democracy in Black America.

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