Assess the view that Booker T. Washington was the most important leader in the development of African American civil rights in the period of 1865 to 1992.
Booker T. Washington was arguably the first of at least five important leaders in the development of black civil rights. The work of W.E.B Du Bois continued throughout the period from 1909 to the 1950s, while Malcolm X and Garvey experienced short-lived but powerful leadership. Overall, Martin Luther King was the most important leader – showing empathy towards all African American attitudes.
Booker T. Washington advocated the ‘Accomodationist’ strategy – he believed blacks should not demand anything, and should work towards civil rights through education. He formed the Tuskegee Institute and made his opinion known in his Atlanta Compromise Speech in 1895; both received positive responses, and did encourage black people to pursue higher aspirations through education. Therefore, Washington was an important leader in “laying the foundation” for African Americans to use their rights effectively and pragmatically. However, his actions were extremely limited as the President – Andrew Johnson was racist, followed by other racist presidents, and the Supreme Court was not influenced by Washington. Whereas W.E.B Du Bois formed the NAACP – supported by others who disregarded Washington, and the NAACP was very important, as in comparison to Washington – the Supreme Court often ruled in black favour, on influence from Du Bois and the NAACP. Therefore, Du Bois was arguably more important a leader than Booker T. Washington, because he was also campaigning under racist presidencies, yet Du Bois was successful in gaining the support of 90,000 people – black and white – and the support of the Supreme Court; Washington failed to secure this. Yet support dropped for the NAACP in the 1930s, just as support had begun to drop for Washington at the turn of the century – implying Du Bois was not as important, however this is not the case. The fall in membership can be attributed to the poor economy and Du Bois’ major support from the middle classes – the working class blacks suffered the most, and although Du Bois is not to blame for the Wall Street Crash; he is not the most important leader as he failed to reach out to a vast majority of working class black people. Booker T. Washington was important insomuch as he inspired people like Garvey, and caused the NAACP to be formed in opposition – but his aim was not achieved, and the education gap continued to widen – money was not spent on black education, but increasingly on white education. Washington was not the most important leader; particularly shown in comparison by Du Bois’ influence continuing into the 1950s.