Had he wished to, White easily could have spent his life passing. But one terrifying evening September 1906 foreclosed that possibility forever. Jim Crow’s fervor was at its height that autumn, and Atlanta was shot through with rumors of the Black Beast hunting down white women. Thirteen-year-old Walter and his father were downtown on the afternoon of the twenty-second when the tensions exploded and whites took control of the streets. They rushed back to their home on the edge of the black neighborhood. Hidden inside, the Whites could hear the mob moving toward them, could see the flickering light of their torches in the distance, could hear their shouts ripping through the night. “That’s where the nigger mail carrier lives! Let’s burn it down! It’s too nice for a nigger to live in!” Walter’s father took him into the parlor, handed him a rifle, and positioned him at a window. “Son,” he remembered his father saying, “don’t shoot until the first man puts his foot on the lawn and then–don’t you miss.” Walter never had to pull the trigger. As the mob came upon the house, friends of his father’s who had barricaded themselves into a nearby home, opened fire, driving the white back into the darkness. But the moment had changed Walter forever.
“I was gripped by the knowledge of my identity,” he said, “and in the depths of my soul I was vaguely aware that I was glad of it. I was sick with loathing for the hatred which had flared before me that night and had come so close to making me a killer; but I was glad that I was not one of those who hated; I was glad that I was not of those whose story is in the history of the world, a record of bloodshed, rapine, and pillage. I was glad my mind and spirit were part of the races that . . . had still before them the opportunity to write a record of virtue as a memorandum to Armageddon.”
– Arc of Justice, Kevin Boyle