Black History Month

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington


Booker T. Washington (1856–1915). (Wikimedia Commons)

Booker T. Washington was born a slave in Virginia in 1856. Early on in his life, he developed a thirst for reading and learning. After attending an elementary school for African-American children, Washington walked 500 miles to enroll in Hampton Institute, one of the few black high schools in the South.

Following his graduation from Hampton, for a few years Washington taught elementary school in his hometown. In 1880, General Armstrong invited him to return to teach at Hampton. A year later, Armstrong nominated Washington to head a new school in Tuskegee, Alabama, for the training of black teachers, farmers, and skilled workers.

Washington designed, developed, and guided the Tuskegee Institute. It became a powerhouse of African-American education and political influence in the United States. He used the Hampton Institute, with its emphasis on agricultural and industrial training, as his model.

Washington argued that African Americans must concentrate on educating themselves, learning useful trades, and investing in their own businesses. Hard work, economic progress, and merit, he believed, would prove to whites the value of blacks to the American economy.

Washington believed that his vision for black people would eventually lead to equal political and civil rights. In the meantime, he advised blacks to put aside immediate demands for voting and ending racial segregation.

In his famous address to the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, Washington accepted the reality of racial segregation. He insisted, however, that African Americans be included in the economic progress of the South.

Washington declared to an all-white audience, “In all things social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” Washington went on to express his confidence that, “No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.”

White Americans viewed Washington’s vision as the key to racial peace in the nation. With the aid of white philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie, Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and its philosophy of economics first and equal rights later thrived.

Recognized by whites as the spokesman for his people, Washington soon became the most powerful black leader in the United States. He had a say in political appointments and which African-American colleges and charities would get funding from white philanthropists. He controlled a number of newspapers that attacked anyone who questioned his vision.

Washington considered himself a bridge between the races. But other black leaders criticized him for tolerating racial segregation at a time of increasing anti-black violence and discrimination.
Washington did publicly speak out against the evils of segregation, lynching, and discrimination in voting. He also secretly participated in lawsuits involving voter registration tests, exclusion of blacks from juries, and unequal railroad facilities.

By the time Booker T. Washington died in 1915, segregation laws and racial discrimination were firmly established throughout the South and in many other parts of the United States. This persistent racism blocked the advancement of African Americans.

For Further Reading

Smock, Raymond. Booker T. Washington in Perspective: Essays of Louis R. Harlan. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2006.

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W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois


W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963). (Wikimedia Commons)

W.E.B. Du Bois was born in Massachusetts in 1868. He attended racially integrated elementary and high schools and went off to Fiske College in Tennessee at age 16 on a scholarship. Du Bois completed his formal education at Harvard with a Ph.D. in history.

Du Bois briefly taught at a college in Ohio before he became the director of a major study on the social conditions of blacks in Philadelphia. He concluded from his research that white discrimination was the main reason that kept African Americans from good-paying jobs.

In 1895, black educator Booker T. Washington delivered his famous “Atlanta Address” in which he accepted segregation but wanted African Americans to be part of the South’s economy. Two years later, Du Bois wrote, “We want to be Americans, full-fledged Americans, with all the rights of American citizens.” He envisioned the creation of an elite group of educated black leaders, “The Talented Tenth,” who would lead African Americans in securing equal rights and higher economic standards.

Du Bois attacked Washington’s acceptance of racial segregation, arguing that this only encouraged whites to deny African Americans the right to vote and to undermine black pride and progress. Du Bois also criticized Washington’s approach at the Tuskegee Institute, a school for blacks that Washington founded, as an attempt “to educate black boys and girls simply as servants and underlings.”

Lynchings and riots against blacks led to the formation in 1909 of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization with a mainly black membership. Except for Du Bois who became the editor of the organization’s journal, The Crisis, the founding board of directors consisted of white civil rights leaders.

The NAACP used publicity, protests, lawsuits, and the editorial pages of The Crisis to attack racial segregation, discrimination, and the lynching of blacks. Booker T. Washington rejected this confrontational approach, but by the time of his death in 1915 his Tuskegee vision had lost influence among many African Americans.

By World War I, Du Bois had become the leading black figure in the United States. But he became disillusioned after the war when white Americans continued to deny black Americans equal political and civil rights. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Du Bois increasingly advocated socialist solutions to the nation’s economic problems. He also questioned the NAACP’s goal of a racially integrated society. This led to his resignation as editor of The Crisis in 1934.

Du Bois grew increasingly critical of U. S. capitalism and foreign policy. He praised the accomplishments of communism in the Soviet Union. In 1961, he joined the U.S. Communist Party. Shortly afterward, he left the county, renounced his American citizenship, and became a citizen of Ghana in Africa. He died there at age 95 in 1963.

Du Bois never took part in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, which secured many of the rights that he had fought for during his lifetime.

For Further Reading

Wolters, Raymond. Du Bois and His Rivals. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 2003.

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Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass


Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–1895). (Wikimedia Commons)

The life of Frederick Douglass, the great African-American statesman, encompassed the most momentous years of his people’s long history in America. He had been born a slave about 1817 in the slave state of Maryland during the presidency of slave owner James Monroe. As he grew to manhood, the South’s “peculiar institution” was flourishing and slave owners were beginning to be possessed of a new confidence about the future of a culture based on slavery. When Frederick Douglass died in 1895, slavery had been extinct for 30 years, but his people were still not free, despite the promises of the Civil War amendments — the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution.

Given the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, he started calling himself Douglass to throw off slave hunters after he escaped from bondage. The fugitive slave’s first public appearance came in 1841 when he rose to address an audience in Massachusetts. The effect was electrifying. Douglass presented the striking figure of a tall, handsome man possessed of a fine speaking voice, a leonine head, and lion’s fierce determination to match. Frederick Douglass told the story of his own life in slavery, the brutal treatment he had suffered, his struggle to teach himself to read, his longings for freedom and his two escapes, the second a successful one. The turning point of Douglass’ personal history probably came the day he fought back against an overseer bent on whipping him, forcing the man to back off. He learned that resistance was possible, even in slavery. Douglass’ account impressed all who heard it, and he soon became a paid employee of the Anti-Slavery Society.

When the Civil War came, Douglass rejoiced that the “slave holders themselves have saved our cause from ruin.” He was always a step or two ahead of his time and said from the beginning what many Americans were still unwilling to admit — that slavery was the root cause of the great American conflict. He was contemptuous of Abraham Lincoln’s attempts to conciliate the South during the early months of his presidency. Douglass greeted the Emancipation Proclamation, however, as a sign that the war was “no longer a mere strife for territory or dominion, but a contest of civilization against barbarism.”

He had from the start urged that blacks be enlisted as Union soldiers, recognizing not only that such action could hasten Northern victory, but also that it would be more difficult to deny the rights of citizenship to men who had worn the uniform of the United States. Although Northern leaders were at first reluctant, it was not long before black regiments were being fielded. About 180,000 African-American men eventually saw service, representing a significant part of the total Union enlistment. Douglass helped recruit some the regiments and he argued against discrimination in pay and duties, and urged retaliation against Confederate murder and enslavement of black prisoners of war.

A few weeks before his death in 1895, Douglass was asked what advice he would give to a young black American. “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” the old man answered.

For Further Reading
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Simon & Brown. 2011.

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The Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act

Lyndon Johnson, who became president following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, sailed to a landslide victory in the 1964 presidential election. After the election, Johnson moved to do something about voting rights.


President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Wikimedia Commons)

Southern states had historically deprived the vote from millions of African-American citizens. Although guaranteed by the 15th Amendment, the right to vote had been denied blacks through discriminatory legal strategies, economic intimidation, and physical threats. The civil rights movement had focused on voting rights, particularly during Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964. President Johnson delivered an impassioned speech to the nation on March 15, 1965, recognizing the problem and urging a national legislative solution. He specifically called attention to the widespread efforts of whites to keep black people from the most important function of democracy — choosing their own representatives in government. Pointedly, Johnson ended his speech with the historic words of the national civil rights anthem, “We shall overcome.”

The president and other supporters of a voting-rights act knew that only strong federal legislation could address the problem of voting discrimination. From 1961 to 1965, the U.S. Justice Department had filed many lawsuits against state and local officials in the South, mostly in Mississippi. Even when successful, these lawsuits rarely had much impact because white officials kept finding new ways to avoid their legal duties.

President Johnson’s support of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 reflected the pressures from the massive civil rights protests of the early and middle 1960s. As in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Johnson’s political skills worked wonders. He was aided by highly publicized voting-rights demonstrations throughout the South. On March 7, 1965, police officials savagely attacked non-violent civil rights marchers at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Widely repeated on television news programs, this horrific incident aroused public opinion in favor of the pending voting-rights legislation.

Signed in August 1965, the act struck down two methods Southern whites had long employed to keep blacks from voting — literacy tests and poll taxes. The act also authorized the Justice Department to send federal registrars and observers to the South to register black voters and to guarantee the fairness of local and state elections. Finally, the Voting Rights Act required states to submit any changes in their voting laws and procedures to the Justice Department or to the federal district court in Washington, D.C., for approval.

Like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this legislation came under swift legal attack. But the Supreme Court in 1966 in South Carolina v. Katzenbach rejected this challenge. It ruled that the act fell under Congress’s power to enforce the requirements of the 15th Amendment, which had been ratified in 1870.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 had immediate and dramatic results. Within two years with the help of many volunteers, African-American voter registration throughout the South increased to more than 50 percent of the voting-age population. Mississippi’s black voters in particular benefited from this legislation, moving from the lowest percentage of eligible voters to the highest. Again, the civil rights movement had garnered a major legal victory, further moving the nation to a fuller recognition of its ideals of democracy and racial equality.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. What did the Voting Rights Act of 1965 do? Do you think it was effective?
  2. What problems of discrimination exist in America today? Do you think laws can remedy these problems? Explain.

For Further Reading

Bullock III, Charles S. & Ronald Keith Gaddie. The Triumph of Voting Rights in the South. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. 2009.

Laney, Garrine P. The Voting Rights Act of 1965: Historical Background and Current Issues. New York: Nova Science Publishers. 2011.

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The Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

The civil rights movement deeply affected American society. Among its most important achievements were two major civil rights laws passed by Congress. These laws ensured constitutional rights for African Americans and other minorities. Although these rights were first guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution immediately after the Civil War, they had never been fully enforced. It was only after years of highly publicized civil rights demonstrations, marches, and violence that American political leaders acted to enforce these rights.


President Lyndon Johnson signs the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. Behind him stands the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (Wikimedia Commons)

President John F. Kennedy proposed the initial civil rights act. Kennedy faced great personal and political conflicts over this legislation. On the one hand, he was sympathetic to African-American citizens whose dramatic protests highlighted the glaring gap between American ideals and American realities. Kennedy understood that black people deserved the full equality they were demanding. He also knew that racial discrimination in the United States, particularly highly public displays of violence and terror against racial minorities, embarrassed America internationally. Moreover, his civil rights legislation generated considerable support among Northern liberals and moderates as well as millions of African-American voters in states where they could vote without difficulty or intimidation.

On the other hand, Kennedy worried about losing the support of white Southern Democrats, still the main political force in that region. He was especially concerned about his re-election prospects in 1964. Facing strong Southern opposition, a reluctant president finally proposed strong civil rights legislation to Congress, admitting privately to civil rights leaders that street protests had forced his hand.

Johnson and the Civil Rights Bill

Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, changed the political dynamics of the impending civil rights legislation. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded Kennedy and almost immediately intensified the campaign for a major civil rights bill. Although a Southern politician, he had developed compassion for the courageous struggles of African Americans during the civil rights movement. His personal commitment to ensuring full equality for minority citizens, in fact, surpassed Kennedy’s.

Johnson stood in a better position than his predecessor to push the civil rights legislation through Congress. An extremely accomplished politician, Johnson thoroughly understood Congress and its complex operations. For many years, he had served as the Senate majority leader. With the responsibility to guide legislation through Congress, he had worked with colleagues of both parties and different outlooks. During his service, he mastered the art of compromise, gaining many victories for his party’s legislative agenda. He also developed close relationships with senators and representatives of both political parties. He regularly used that personal knowledge, combined with charm, flattery, and threats, to achieve his legislative goals. This skill proved especially useful in getting Congress to pass a major civil rights bill.
President Johnson used another key strategy to pass the civil rights bill. He took advantage of the national sympathy and mourning surrounding Kennedy’s tragic death. In public speeches and private talks, he urged passage of the civil rights act as a lasting legacy to the martyred president. Building widespread public support, he urged religious leaders throughout the nation (especially in the South) to use their influence on behalf of the civil rights act.

The actual battle in Congress took all of Johnson’s political skills. Faced with strong opposition from many Republicans and most Southern Democrats, he resorted to his forceful personal powers. He told Georgia Senator Richard Russell, a major opponent of civil rights legislation, that “if you get in the way, I’m going to run you down.” In the Senate, the president faced a filibuster, a delaying debate that could have killed the entire bill. The filibuster lasted 83 days, the longest in Senate history. But Johnson managed to get the votes to end it. He worked the telephones himself and lobbied personally, “twisting arms” of legislators still unsure of how to vote. Enlisting White House aides, civil rights and labor leaders, and key congressional civil rights advocates, he pulled out all the stops to gain a legislative victory.

Johnson’s persistence and political talents succeeded. On July 2, 1964, he formally signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, using 72 ceremonial pens. Many dignitaries, including Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and several other national civil rights figures, attended the ceremony. This law banned racial discrimination in several areas, including hotels, restaurants, education, and other public accommodations. This landmark act also guaranteed equal job opportunities, fulfilling one major objective of the historic 1963 March on Washington. Many larger Southern businesses had already desegregated in response to sit-ins and other civil rights protests. But the Civil Rights Act of 1964 added important legal protections to these political and social developments.

Almost immediately, the new civil rights law came under legal challenge. The owner of an Atlanta motel argued that Congress did not have the authority under the U.S. Constitution to ban segregation in public accommodations. This 216-room establishment, which served an interstate clientele, had long refused to rent rooms to African Americans. When Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States reached the Supreme Court, the court rejected the owner’s argument. It ruled that the commerce clause of the Constitution authorized Congress to enact this type of legislation. Civil rights advocates had achieved their most significant legal victory since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision banning school segregation.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. What did the Civil Rights Act of 1964 do? Do you think it was effective?   
  2. Why was President Johnson able to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Do you think President Kennedy would have been able to get it passed? Explain.

For Further Reading

Loevy, Robert D. The Civil Rights Act of 1964: The Passage of the Law that Ended Racial Segregation. New York: State University of the New York Press. 1997

Mayer, Robert. The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Michigan: Greenhaven Publishing. 2004.

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