Born in Atlanta, Georgia on July 1, 1883, White was one of the organizers of the Atlanta Chapter of the NAACP. In 1918, James Weldon Johnson asked him to join the national staff as Assistant National Secretary. He investigated lynchings and riots throughout the country, using his appearance -- 27 of his 32 great-great-great-grandparents were white -- to gain information about groups such as the KKK. These findings were used to support the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1923 but defeated due a filibuster in the Senate.
In 1931 White succeeded Johnson as leader of the NAACP. He created the Legal Defense Fund under Charles Hamilton Houston, who soon recruited protege Thurgood Marshall. He also worked closely with President Truman in the 1948 desegregation of the military. He lead the NAACP until his death in 1955 and saw a five-fold increase in membership to 500,000.
White was also part of the Harlem Renaissance, writing novels Fire in the Flint, based on his experiences investigating lynchings, and Flight, on the migration of southern African Americans to the cities of the north. He also promoted the work of other writers such as poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes.