He was the dominant figure in the African-American community in the United States from 1890 to 1915. Representative of the last generation of black American leaders born in slavery, he spoke on behalf of the large majority of blacks who lived in the South but had lost their ability to vote through disfranchisement by southern legislatures. While his opponents called his powerful network of supporters the "Tuskegee Machine," Washington maintained power because of his ability to gain support of numerous groups: influential whites; the black business, educational and religious communities nationwide; financial donations from philanthropists, and his accommodation to the political realities of the age of Jim Crow segregation.
Washington attained national prominence for his Atlanta Address of 1895, which attracted the attention of politicians and the public, making him a popular spokesperson for African-American citizens. He built a nationwide network of supporters in many black communities, with black ministers, educators and businessmen composing his core supporters. Washington played a dominant role in black politics, winning wide support in the black community and among more liberal whites (especially rich Northern whites). He gained access to top national leaders in politics, philanthropy and education. Washington's efforts included cooperating with white people and enlisting the support of wealthy philanthropists, helping to raise funds to establish and operate thousands of small community schools and institutions of higher education for the betterment of blacks throughout the South. This work continued for many years after his death. Washington argued that the surest way for blacks to gain equal social rights was to demonstrate "industry, thrift, intelligence and property."
Northern critics called Washington's followers the "Tuskegee Machine". After 1909, Washington was criticized by the leaders of the new NAACP, especially W. E. B. Du Bois, who demanded a stronger tone of protest for advancement of civil rights needs. Washington replied that confrontation would lead to disaster for the outnumbered blacks, and that cooperation with supportive whites was the only way to overcome pervasive racism in the long run. At the same time, he secretly funded litigation for civil rights cases, such as challenges to southern constitutions and laws that disfranchised blacks.
In addition to his contributions in education, Washington wrote 14 books; his autobiography, Up From Slavery, first published in 1901, is still widely read today. During a difficult period of transition, he did much to improve the working relationship between the races. His work greatly helped blacks to achieve higher education, financial power and understanding of the U.S. legal system. This contributed to blacks' attaining the skills to create and support the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, leading to the passage of important federal civil rights laws.
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