Culture & Society

The Activism of Booker T. Washington

The early civil rights advocate worked both directly and behind the scenes to gain political rights and improve civil society for Black Americans

Booker T. Washington at his desk at the Tuskegee Institute, 1894. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Booker T. Washington is an icon of the civil rights struggle in the United States. But he is often maligned by modern-day historians and activists who view him as an accommodationist to white racism. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth, as we demonstrate in our forthcoming book, “Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America.” Washington’s contributions were essential to developing the robust civil society institutions that significantly improved Black life and also provided a foundation for the civil rights movement.

Strengthening Civil Society

It is true that Washington had a more moderate approach to Black civil rights than many of his successors in the civil rights movement. He wanted Black Americans to have civil rights, but he also wanted them to build schools, get a useful education and create a sustainable community. Therefore Washington encouraged self-reliance, practical education and coexistence with whites. How else could he and the Tuskegee Institute—the Black college he literally helped build, and which he served as president for most of his life—survive in the milieu of Southern racism?

Washington moved to Alabama and took over the Tuskegee Institute at the height of Jim Crow. It was a time when many “enlightened” Americans, in both the North and South, embraced scientific racism and believed that Black people were racially inferior to whites. It was Washington’s task, in becoming the “leader of the race” following Frederick Douglass’ death, to demonstrate that the enlightened experts were wrong. He modeled Black achievement in his own life and wrote several autobiographies to show Americans that Black people were capable of education and achievement—they weren’t naturally inferior. He also formed numerous organizations, such as the National Negro Business League, that enabled Black Americans to come together, pool resources, share knowledge and improve their lives. And he did advocate for political rights for Black Americans, both explicitly and behind the scenes, sometimes with surprising success.

Political Activism

One way Washington actively pursued Black political rights was by supporting the organized boycotts of segregated streetcars by Black Americans from 1895 to 1906. According to historian Robert Norrell, Washington approved of these efforts “because the withdrawal of patronage and the lodging of complaints with traction companies represented businesslike, careful responses that he thought might yield benefits.” After all, “a boycott was an exercise of economic power designed to elicit a specific change in future behavior, whereas protests against white violence came to be perceived as after-the-fact ranting.” Washington was convinced that Black economic power would win the day. He declared that whites would quickly recognize that “the Negro’s nickel is necessary to keep the street railway corporation alive.” Unfortunately, despite his support and that of a growing Black professional class, the boycotts all ended in failure.

Washington also fought for Black political rights in more subtle, behind-the-scenes ways. He did his best to promote Blacks for political positions, especially at the federal level, believing that these appointments were of symbolic importance. For instance, Washington worked tirelessly to get President Theodore Roosevelt to appoint William D. Crum as the collector of the Port of Charleston. To get Crum across the finish line, Washington organized a nationwide lobbying campaign that contributed to his eventual appointment. While that appointment was pending, Washington secured another victory when William H. Lewis was appointed assistant U.S. attorney for Boston. This was the highest position any Black American had ever held in the federal government.

Washington also engaged in what might be described as a public relations campaign to improve the image of Black Americans and to provide a counternarrative to white nationalists. He did so by writing countless newspaper articles, publishing multiple books and using his influence with President Roosevelt to demonstrate the endless possibilities for Black achievement. A week after Crum’s appointment, Roosevelt sought further advice from Washington and invited him to dine at the White House—a monumental decision because no Black person had ever dined in the White House before. Washington later wrote that the invitation represented “recognition of the race and no matter what personal condemnation it brought upon my shoulders I have no right to refuse or even hesitate.”

Washington dining with Roosevelt and his family—including his daughter—caused an uproar across the South and in truth endangered Washington’s personal safety. Ben Tillman, the Democratic firebrand senator from South Carolina, proclaimed that “[t]he action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that n—— will necessitate our killing a thousand n——s in the South before they will learn their place again.” His fellow Southerner, Mississippi governor James K. Vardaman, was also outraged: “President Roosevelt takes this n—— bastard into his home, introduces him to his family and entertains him on terms of absolute social equality.” A populist paper in Alabama asserted, “Poor Roosevelt! He might now just as well sleep with Booker Washington, for the scent of that coon will follow him to the grave, as far as the South is concerned.” As a result of this breach of Southern “etiquette,” threatening letters poured into Tuskegee, and an assassin even confessed to being hired to kill Washington.

In contrast, Blacks praised Roosevelt and Washington for the symbolic importance of the dinner and for the courage both exhibited in the aftermath. Emmett Jay Scott, one of Washington’s closest advisers, wrote to him, “It is splendid, magnificent! The world is moving forward.” A minister from Chicago praised the dinner as “an omen of the coming of that day when we shall neither be favored nor hindered because of the color of our skin.” A Birmingham minister likewise wrote to Washington, “We negroes feel that you are greatly honored, indeed, and that you have done more to advance our interest in new territory than any living man.” Norrell concludes that “the White House dinner represented an embrace of racial equality by the most powerful white man and the most powerful black man in the United States.”

Legal Victories and Defeats

Washington’s advice on federal appointments was particularly fortunate for Black Americans in the case of Thomas Goode Jones, whom Washington recommended for a federal judgeship in Montgomery. He described Jones as “a gold democrat, and [he] is a clean, pure man in every respect.” Despite the fact that Jones had not supported the Republican ticket in 1900, Roosevelt took Washington’s advice and appointed Jones to the bench. This was one of Washington’s most influential actions as a leader of Black America. Although Jones was white, he would be an important ally in the struggle to preserve Black liberty.

In 1903, Jones “convened a federal grand jury to investigate peonage” in Alabama. The jury found that peonage did exist in the state: Black men were often found guilty of a trivial crime and then signed a contract to work on a plantation. Once a convict was close to fulfilling his contract’s term, he was often convicted of another crime and coerced to sign another labor contract. In the similar system of convict leasing, local police would issue fines to convicts and then lease them out to local corporations, where the convicts slowly paid off what they owed to the state, often under horrible conditions. This peonage system clearly violated the Constitution, and Judge Jones’ actions put an end to both peonage and convict leasing. Washington’s efforts in getting Jones appointed thus resulted in a major victory.

However, these early victories over convict leasing and peonage in Alabama were offset by a crushing loss. In 1902, Washington began financing a legal challenge to the newly enacted Alabama Constitution, which had stripped Black Alabamians of their political rights. The lawyer on the case ultimately filed five lawsuits, hoping to reach the Supreme Court and have the Alabama Constitution declared unconstitutional.

Washington’s support of Judge Jones once again paid off, as Jones helped one of the cases make it all the way to the Supreme Court. Pursuing a process that looked a lot like the NAACP’s later strategy of achieving liberty through the courts, Washington insisted, “I believe there is a way to win, or at least put the Supreme Court in an awkward position. We must not give up our efforts.” Unfortunately, a month later the Supreme Court dashed Washington’s hopes by upholding similar state laws in Virginia that discriminated against Blacks. A similar challenge to Louisiana’s Constitution, which Washington had also supported, failed in state court. Although Booker T. Washington was pursuing a strategy similar to the one that would ultimately result in watershed court victories in the 1950s, only so much could be achieved with respect to Black political rights in the early 1900s.

Quiet Activism

Although Booker T. Washington didn’t always advertise his efforts for Black civil rights—because doing so would endanger both himself and the Tuskegee Institute—he consistently provided resources for court challenges behind the scenes. W.E.B. Du Bois and other critics would later claim that Washington didn’t care about Black political rights, but they were nonetheless aware of his efforts. In fact, Washington even financed Du Bois’ lawsuit against the Pullman Company: Du Bois had been denied a sleeping berth in one of the company’s cars because of his race. Washington had been trying for years to get Robert Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son and president of the Pullman Palace Car Company, to live up to his father’s example. As Washington exclaimed in one letter: “It does seem to me that a rich and powerful corporation like yours could find some way to extend in some degree, protection to the weak.” Washington’s moral challenges fell on deaf ears, but his critics were undoubtedly aware of his efforts to end discrimination and restore Black political rights.

Washington’s efforts at protecting Black civil liberties may look minuscule when compared with the great achievements of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s, but in reality his efforts made a crucial difference. Indeed, by encouraging and empowering Black economic achievement and the growth of civil society, he improved the lives of millions of Black Americans and actually helped establish the foundation for the later successes of the civil rights movement.

Submit a Letter to the Editor
Submit your letter
Subscribe to our newsletter