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.
La Follette and her husband, congressman and later senator Robert La Follette (R-Wis.), were part of the small but determined biracial coalition striving to bring about the economic equality and full citizenship to African Americans that Reconstruction had intended — but failed — to achieve.
From the floor of the House of Representatives in 1890, as violence and intimidation destroyed postwar progress and entrenched white rule in the South, Bob La Follette warned, “You cannot maintain a domestic election system rooted in perjury and fraud and watered with blood and not see it finally blossom and fruit in bitterness and hate and awful retribution.”
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.
McAdoo passed the buck to Joseph Ralph, director of that bureau, who denied any general order to segregate. But he grudgingly acknowledged that when “three colored girls” persisted in disregarding the “kindly suggestion” that “it would be best for them to occupy [lunch] tables with girls of their own race,” he found it “necessary” to give them “positive directions” to restrict themselves to those tables assigned to “colored assistants.”
La Follette interviewed the three women in question, who had worked for the bureau for an average of 10 years, for “La Follette’s Magazine” (published today as “The Progressive”). Her reporting crystallized the human suffering caused by the new segregation. Since eating at integrated tables hadn’t been specifically forbidden, she asked the women if they were still attempting to do so. “No,” came the reply, “it was no use trying. Our food choked us.”
The repercussions for this unwanted publicity were swift. Two days after the interview, the most outspoken of the three women, Rosebud Murraye, received her dismissal notice. When the NAACP declined to take up her case, La Follette protested Murraye’s firing directly to President Wilson (reprinting her letter in the press), and when the government refused to reinstate Murraye, helped to find her another (albeit lower paying) job in the private sector.
La Follette grew more committed to the cause of racial justice with news of each fresh indignity as black government workers were demeaned or fired. She used speeches as well as a lengthy series of articles to make clear that “merit, not sympathy, demands that Negroes should not be discriminated against and should be accorded the justice due them as citizens of a democracy.”
Outraged that public service was being added to the already long list of areas in which African Americans confronted indignities, La Follette skewered in particular the hypocrisy of Southern whites who supported segregation. “It seems strange,” she observed caustically, “that the very ones who consider it a hardship to sit next [to] a colored person in a streetcar, entrust their children to colored nurses, and eat food prepared by colored hands.”
On Jan. 4, 1914, La Follette spoke at the “colored” YMCA on 12th Street in Washington, where she urged the African American audience to keep up the fight against segregation.
As the purging of African Americans from positions in the federal government continued, La Follette called for “agitation and discretion,” because the purges, “degrade our standards, corrupt our ideals, and destroy our sense of democracy.”
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.
Her activism inspired others to join in the effort. As the ranks of the Washington branch of the NAACP swelled, Wilson received hundreds of letters of complaint calling the discrimination “harsh and humiliating,” “an insult and an outrage” and a violation of “the spirit of the Constitution and opposed to the teaching of Jesus Christ.”
Yet, La Follette’s campaign can be viewed as a failure. While the outcry she helped to generate prompted the new secretary of the Treasury to mandate no segregation notices posted in restrooms, no discrimination in promotions and no partitions in dressing rooms, few of the measures already in place were rolled back in other departments. Nor was there any congressional investigation into the new segregation. When the African American civil rights leader William Monroe Trotter confronted Wilson directly, he was thrown out of the White House.
La Follette’s campaign, however, can also be termed a success. Her expose and her refusal to accept defeat left African Americans feeling less alone in their struggle. Navy Department auditor Ralph W. Tyler, organizer of the National Negro Business League thanked her for her “immeasurable” help, telling her how inspiring he found it that “my race still has good, strong, and eminently fair white friends in this day of threatened segregation, just as we had in the dark days of subjugation before our emancipation.”
Upon La Follette’s death in 1931 James Weldon Johnson, author of “The Biography of an Ex-Colored Man,” observed that throughout her life, belief in racial equality was not just an abstract principle. He praised her for using her “power and influence to destroy the blindness and injustice with which Negro citizens of America are treated.”
In the days ahead, white Americans can use their privilege to be perpetuators of an old problem, or partners in the creation of a new solution. Protest does not automatically lead to change. White expressions of solidarity today will ring hollow if not followed up by the kind of meaningful and persistent action modeled by Belle La Follette in exposing and attacking racism. As her efforts and failures show, this won’t be a quick or easy fight, but whiteness enables allies in this struggle to push in ways that African Americans sometimes cannot without disproportionate risk. That was Belle La Follette’s secret — she used white privilege to fight against it.