“My dear Mr. President [Theodore Roosevelt]: If you have in mind the sending in of a special message bearing upon the lynching of Italians in Mississippi, I am wondering if you could not think it proper to enlarge a little on the general subject of lynching; I think it would do good. I think you could with perfect safety, give the Southern States praise, especially the Governors and the daily press, for assisting in reducing the number of lynchings. The subject is a very important and far reaching one and keeps many of our people constantly stirred up […].”
-Booker T. Washington, “January 5, 1902”
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
Leo Tolstoy offers the following expression concerning men and women who live according to their conscience, as opposed to the dictates of popular sentiment: “He who lives not for the sake of his conscience, but for the sake of others’ praise, lives badly.” Although Booker T. Washington, founding principal and president of Tuskegee (Institute) University, might have expressed his views more diplomatically than most men and women of his era who were not situated at the helm of a major institution, he possessed his own methods to express his views nevertheless. And the communication to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt suggests a great deal about how this institutional president operated in matters of national importance. First, he need not make a public announcement of his views. Booker T. Washington had direct access to the President of the United States. An advisor to President Roosevelt on a number of political matters, his letters reveal an ongoing stream of communication that suggests that his advice and opinion mattered to the President and would be weighed carefully. Second, he used the opportunity of President Roosevelt’s apparent willingness to discuss “the lynchings of Italians in Mississippi” to suggest that he broaden his discussion to encompass to one of his primary constituencies and concerns during the period-the lynching of African Americans. Finally, he alluded to the importance of the President addressing the subject: It was for the benefit of all Americans. He fittingly ascribed his concern to the well being of the country similar to Lyman Beecher Stowe’s sentiment when he penned the following: “Here in America, we are all, in the end, going up or down together.” Here again, the man Booker T. Washington might not have done what many desired him to do and in the precise manner they would have liked for him to do but he did do what he thought was right to do.
Brian L. Johnson, Ph.D.
7th President, Tuskegee University