Personal and Confidential
[To William Howard Taft]
My dear Mr. President: In considering the matter of the new judge for the Northern District of Alabama, I hope you will bear in mind the interests of the Negro. The United States Courts have been, as it were, kind of “cities of refuge” for the colored people. I mean that in these courts they have been always sure of securing justice in cases that properly come under the jurisdiction of such courts by reason of the fact that the judges have been such broad and liberal men that the juries have represented a class of people who would see that a fair verdict was rendered.
Not only this, but in the United States Courts in the South Negroes have heretofore been place on the grand jury and petit jury and in this way they gotten recognition that they have not gotten in any other case. This matter, as small as it is, has gone to make them feel that they were citizens and has encouraged them not a little. With few exceptions, where narrow minded men have been made judges they have gradually used their influence in some way to keep Negroes off the juries and have made them feel that they had few rights in these courts.
Please do not take the time to answer this letter. Yours very truly, Booker T. Washington, “May 6, 1909”
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
After “integrity,” and “knowledge,” “influence” is the third greatest 9-letter word. And in this letter to the 27th President of the United States of America, William Howard Taft, Booker T. Washington once again demonstrates that the range of his “influence” extended to the very highest levels of American government. In earlier correspondence, President Taft, who succeeded President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909, made it crystal clear that the founding principal and president of Tuskegee (Institute) University would still be expected to play a similar major role in advising the President of the United States as he had done with President Roosevelt. (The correspondence reveals that Roosevelt not only recommended Washington’s pivotal role in consulting on major affairs but also Taft readily assented.) All the same, we learn in the letter to President Taft three very important considerations about the founding principal and president of Tuskegee University and his “influence.” First, we learn, contrary to popular opinion, he used his “influence” to address issues that concerned one of his most important constituents: African Americans. Here again, one would be remiss to think that Mr. Washington did not advocate on issues of importance. Rather, he moved “in a rather quiet way” as he indicated in a previous communiqué. (The loudest communication is not necessarily the most effective communication, and Mr. Washington’s direct correspondence with the President of the United States is effective communication.) Second, the “influence” of Mr. Washington’s correspondence was certain in that it was marked “personal and confidential.” This was not one of many letters that the President of the United State or any man or woman situated at the helm of a large organization receives that may or may not come to his attention or was handled through an intermediary. It is clear that Mr. Washington’s letters would be read by the President himself. So much so that Mr. Washington did not even need a reply: “Please do not take the time to answer this letter.” Third and last, Mr. Washington’s “influential” advocacy was owing to sound, sober and logical reasoning. His letter thoughtfully and dispassionately articulates the potential success for President Taft in following his suggestion based upon both past and present successes in similar matters. (No doubt Mr. Washington was likely part of such decisions during the Roosevelt Administration.) All three of these reasons-along with many, many more-are why Tuskegee University celebrates the “influence” of Booker T. Washington in this the centennial year (1915-2015) since his passing.
Brian L. Johnson, Ph.D.