The Template for Using White Privilege to Fight RacismRoundup
tags: racism, segregation, womens history, Progressive Era, social reform
Nancy C. Unger is professor of history at Santa Clara University, and author of the prize-winning biographies Belle La Follette: Progressive Era Reformer, and Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer.
In coming weeks, there will be more debates about what white Americans must do if this nation is to finally overcome structural inequality.
The role of Belle Case La Follette in fighting against racially segregated government offices in 1913 and 1914 offers a template, illuminating how white Americans can genuinely assist in the crusade for racial justice. La Follette was keenly aware that while she could not know what it was like to be African American confronting deeply entrenched racist structures, she could dig into the trenches and focus on action, advocacy and activism, not mere expressions of solidarity.
In 1913, without public notice, the new administration of Woodrow Wilson reversed 50 years of tradition and racially segregated government offices in the nation’s capital. It also began purging and mistreating African American employees. African American leader Mary Church Terrell called it “the most serious blow to Negro rights since the days of slavery,” and Booker T. Washington observed he had never seen African Americans in Washington “so discouraged and so bitter.”
The change received little attention in the mainstream press, but an African-American colleague alerted Belle La Follette, who sprang into action. Although she had no political power (as a woman, she could not vote), her goal was to generate sufficient white awareness of this assault on black rights to spur a congressional investigation. She first confronted William McAdoo, secretary of labor and Wilson’s son-in-law, to confirm the Bureau of Printing and Engraving was segregating its work and eating spaces.
La Follette received blowback for her activism. Readers canceled their subscriptions. An anonymous letter warned her that “decent white people” opposed her speaking to a black audience. Another, describing her as “disgraceful to the white race,” was signed by “a real white person with no black stripes down the back like you.” Yet, protected by her prominence and her whiteness, La Follette could far more afford to undertake these efforts than African Americans with much more to lose.
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