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White, Lulu Belle Madison

Black Women in America

Merline Pitre

White, Lulu Belle Madison 

(b. 1900; d. 6 July 1957), civil rights activist.

Lulu Belle White, a black female civil rights activist, was a significant force in the struggle against Jim Crow in Texas during the 1940s and 1950s. A mobilizer, organizer, and foot soldier, White dedicated her entire life to fighting the apartheid system in this country and used almost every means necessary to accomplish this goal.

Education and Early Activism

Born in Elmo, Texas, to Henry Madison, a farmer, and Easter Madison, a domestic worker, Lulu Belle Madison received her early education in the public schools of Elmo and Terrell, Texas. Following her high school graduation, she attended Butler College for one year before transferring to Prairie View College, where she received a bachelor’s degree in English in 1928. After her marriage to Julius White and teaching school for nine years, she resigned her post to devote full-time service to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1937 she became Director of Youth Council and fieldworker and, in 1939, acting president of the Houston branch of the NAACP. In 1943, she was elevated to full-time executive secretary of the Houston branch, making her the first woman in the South to hold such a post.

When Lulu White became executive secretary, she traveled from town to town, covering most of the state, garnering contributions, organizing new branches and reactivating old ones. As executive secretary, she was responsible for managing the office, conducting branch activities, helping to organize other branches, but most especially directing membership and fund-raising drives. Members’ dues were essential in keeping the NAACP viable, providing the basic revenue not only for local branches but also for state and national operations. The salaries for all workers, the publicity, cost of publications, travel expenses, and other miscellaneous costs came from membership revenues. The organization’s entire structure depended upon this source of income, and expanding membership was crucial.

Lulu White seemed the right person for the job in Texas. The growth of the NAACP in Houston in the early 1940s represented tremendous progress. Under White’s leadership, the Houston branch grew from 5,674 members in 1943 to 12,700 in 1948. This increase reflected White’s aggressive fieldwork in recruiting new members and her charisma among black Texans and black Houstonians. This work earned her the title of Director of State Branches in 1946.

The Struggle for Voting Rights

In taking the helm of the NAACP in 1943, Lulu White placed herself squarely in the forefront of the black movement for political equality, beginning with the elimination of the white Democratic primary, a statute which provided that only white males were eligible to vote in the Democratic primary. An acid-tongued individual who was not afraid to speak her mind to whites and differing black factions, Lulu White boldly created the atmosphere necessary for the elimination of the white primary. If the movement were to succeed, it needed risk-taking, passion, spontaneity, and a leader who had the time, resources, and energy to bridge, expand, and transform the techniques needed to encourage people to join the NAACP and to fight for civil rights. The movement found those qualities in Lulu B. White.

Since White was already familiar with black Texans’ struggle to retrieve the ballot, she needed no briefing on this issue. Not only did she become directly involved in Smith v. Allwright, a 1944 case in which an African American man sued for being denied the right to cast a ballot in a primary election, but she was in daily contact with the national headquarters and served as liaison among the national office, the local chapter, and the black press. Additionally, she sent communications to black churches, lodges, fraternal orders, civic, social, and professional organizations, informing them of the status of the white primary struggle. In anticipation of a favorable court decision, White mounted a “pay your poll tax” campaign two months prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Smith v. Allwright. When the Supreme Court declared the white primary statute unconstitutional in April 1944, White hailed the decision as a “second Emancipation” and looked forward to the day when African Americans would realize the full impact of that decision.

One of White’s greatest concerns from 1944 to 1948 was how to get blacks into the political system that had opened as a result of Smith v. Allwright. The success of the NAACP in overturning the primary law launched a new era in black politics and Democratic Party elections. Probably more effectively than any other Texan of her time, Lulu White argued that a strong black voice was needed to shape governmental policies at local and state levels in the 1940s and 1950s. To ensure black participation in the movement for social change, she urged blacks to assume greater roles in the politics of their communities, to learn about political techniques and organizations, and to prepare for future leadership positions. She argued convincingly that those who understood the movement for social change must identify with it fully and must interpret it to others. Not only did White urge blacks to vote and seek office but she also conducted voter registration seminars, helped to select candidates, aided in drafting platforms, and used black churches to address public issues—all without actually campaigning for specific candidates. As a result of her effort, black voter registration increased and several blacks became candidates for office in the 1940s.

Just as Lulu White viewed the vote as a necessary ingredient to full citizenship, she believed that if blacks were to enter the mainstream of American life, it was necessary to expand the general basis of equality through economics. She encouraged her allies to seek employment at white establishments and devoted her personal efforts to similar direct action. Her energetic pursuit of equal opportunities took her, more often than not, on a stormy path, with some white managers refusing to see her, others slamming doors in her face, and still others being evasive. But the persistent Lulu White refused to accept “no” for an answer. She staged solo as well as group demonstrations, one of which resulted in having the “colored” and “white” signs removed from the soda fountain at one of the department stores in Houston in 1946.

Although White’s major tactic for achieving economic justice often appeared to be confrontational, she was quick to admit that this method had to be supplemented by work with other disadvantaged groups, such as labor, to achieve economic independence. For example, in the Houston city elections of 1946, she posed the following questions to many candidates: “Are you in favor of equal opportunity? Do you support organized labor? Will you support or oppose legislation planned to curb organized labor in our state?” Depending on the response given, White elicited support for or against the candidate. Lulu White’s advocacy for a coalition with labor caused many to label her as a communist. But politically liberal White did nothing to discourage such an image. She joined many individuals in getting Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party on the presidential ballot in Texas in 1948.

White was at the forefront of the movement to integrate the University of Texas Law School. Unlike many white southern liberal women who compromised between the deeply ingrained racial prejudice and a sincere desire for racial change by avoiding the controversial issue of integration, White met her critics (both white and black) head-on. In June 1945, the NAACP announced that it would challenge segregated public professional education in Texas. It was Lulu White who found the plaintiff, Heman Marion Sweatt, and together with a legal core of the NAACP, pursued the case Sweatt v. Painter to the Supreme Court. Sweatt won the case and later credited White’s leadership for maintaining his own resolve.

The Later Years

Lulu White stepped down as executive secretary of the Houston chapter of the NAACP on 19 June 1949, after a long-standing feud with Carter Wesley, editor of the Houston Informer, over the issue of integration. Her resignation, however, did not signal the end of her political activism. In her work as Director of State Branches for the Texas NAACP, she continued to fight for political and economic opportunities. She demanded the Houston City Council pass an ordinance that would make it possible for city hospitals to employ black doctors, staged protest demonstrations against the prohibition of black women from trying on clothing in department stores, and worked for the integration of cab companies. White’s friendship with Walter White, Daisy Lampkin, Thurgood Marshall, and Roy Wilkins enabled her to exert influence on the NAACP nationally, and she went on to become a fieldworker for the national office of the NAACP. The week before her death, the National NAACP established the Lulu White Freedom Fund in her honor. Lulu White played an active role in the black community of Houston until her death on 6 July 1957 of a heart ailment. She is buried in Paradise South in Houston, Texas.

See also Civil Rights Movement.


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              Merline Pitre