The few educated blacks in the South, however, strove to change the status quo. In 1881, former slave Booker T. Washington, for example, founded a technical college in Alabama for blacks, called the Tuskegee Institute. Washington quickly became one of the first black activists as he called on blacks to achieve economic equality with whites. A proponent of “accommodation,” Washington argued that social equality and political rights would come only if blacks first became self-reliant and improved their financial footing. Then, he argued, respect from the white community would naturally follow. On the other hand, Washington privately worked to improve blacks’ social standing, despite his publicly stated belief that “agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly.” He helped push for an end to segregation, for example, and supported organizations bent on securing political rights for more blacks.
Many black activists in the North, however, disagreed with Washington. His policy of accommodation, they argued, doomed blacks to an eternity of poverty and second-class citizenship. Leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois called for blacks to seek complete and immediate social and economic equality. Du Bois also called on blacks to develop a “black consciousness” distinctive from that of whites. In his seminal 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, he argued that blacks needed to become more aware of their history, art, music, and religious backgrounds in order to understand themselves fully.
The Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 was a major setback for early civil rights activists. The decision declared that segregated public and private facilities for blacks and whites were “separate but equal,” effectively justifying Jim Crow segregation laws. The single justice who opposed the decision astutely remarked that the Plessy v. Ferguson decision would set back African Americans’ struggle for equality by decades. Just as significant, the Court also upheld the right of southern legislatures to levy poll taxes and give literacy tests—strategies that were meant to exclude blacks from voting. These decisions effectively legalized and spread racism throughout the North and South.