Washington, King, and Marshall in Civil Rights History

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22 min read

Published: Oct 31, 2018

Words: 4384|Page: 1|22 min read

Published: Oct 31, 2018

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Booker T Washington
  3. Martin Luther King Jr
  4. Thurgood Marshall
  5. Discussion
  6. Conclusion


I believe that Martin Luther King Jr brought awareness to the civil rights cause by harnessing the power of the media and the public which led to change in the public’s attitude towards black people. However, he couldn’t have succeeded without the change to the constitution and society that Thurgood Marshall brought through fighting the constitution for the black civil rights in the supreme court and winning. Booker T. Washington also effected great changes during the years after reconstruction ended in 1877, however, he didn’t manage to instigate any long-term effect and many felt he was playing into the hands of the white supremacists. Louis R Harlan maintains that Washington was one of the most important individuals who instigated change, educating many blacks to enable them to become self-sufficient, nonetheless, he didn’t help with the development of their civil rights. Aldon D Morris argues that the legal work and change that Marshall and others in the NAACP brought ‘little relief from the yoke of domination’ for the black populace. He believes that King was the most important individual for the development of civil rights, as he brought change to the masses through high-profile public protests starting with the Montgomery bus boycott. Juan Williams, Marshall’s biographer, asserts that contrary to Morris’s view, Marshall played a ‘central role' in transforming America during the twentieth century’. Although he didn’t necessarily bring change to the relations between the races, the changes needed to be made to the constitution as the groundwork for working on breaking common stereotypes of black people and putting an end to white supremacy.

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I have chosen to research Booker T. Washington, Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Thurgood Marshall to determine who was the most important individual to the development of black civil rights from 1865 to 1965. Washington became a public figure in the early 1880s when he opened the Tuskegee institute to educate black people. Washington had amazing innovative ideas on how to slowly integrate freed slaves into society by making them useful and teaching them trades rather than agitating white supremacists by forcing their way into society. He started his work very soon after the end of the reconstruction period in 1877 when president Hayes withdrew federal troops from all states. However, Washington lacked the publicity and support needed to achieve a revolution. Additionally, he was very controversial as many black people felt he was trying to pacify white supremacists rather than further their cause; he went on with his work until his death in 1915. On the other hand, Marshall started his work as a lawyer in the mid-1930s. Marshall worked for the NAACP and after a few years became the lead chair of the legal office. He fought a record 32 cases in the supreme court, winning an incredible 29 of them. Williams wrote that ‘We make movies about Malcolm X, we get a holiday to honour Dr Martin Luther King, but every day we live with the legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall.’ Marshall brought change to the constitution through the multiple cases he won that led to changes in the constitution, enabling black people to claim equality as one of their rights. Martin Luther King brought around the awareness of the treatment black people were being accorded. Thurgood Marshall’s work wouldn’t have achieved any perceptible change in the treatment of black people in America if King hadn’t rallied the people to claim their rights that Marshall had attained for them. King was a very charismatic speaker and he advocated for the cause of peaceful protesting. King founded an organisation called the SCLC to assist local organisations in passive resistance. He also helped the SNCC with sit-ins and by liaising their requests with the authorities. In my essay, I will further explore my argument that King and Marshall were equally important. I think both types - the legality and publicity - were needed to be overcome to bring actual change to the lives of the black people. Indeed, King needed the support of the law, as to convince a lot of people to join his movement he need to assure them a way out of prison, which he was able to do with the help of the NAACP.

Booker T Washington

The first individual I’m exploring is Booker T Washington who was one of the sole activists from 1877 until his death in 1915. Washington didn’t have to try to advance black civil rights before 1877, as there were black politicians to fulfil that role starting with Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi and Joseph Rainey representing South Carolina from 1870. However, civil rights started lapsing as no one was maintaining the change once politicians lost power under Hayes, and there were no advocates for blacks in congress. This gap led to the possibility of Plessey v. Fergusson becoming a reality in 1896, and the start of Jim Crow laws. Once black civil rights started regressing under President Hayes after 1877, Washington started going public with his ideas for educating blacks to help them work their way up in society. Washington maintained that for whites to accept blacks as equal they would first need to see that blacks were useful to have in society. He said that ‘the individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of race.’ This sums up Washington’s approach to civil rights. He believed that instead of fighting for rights, black people should learn a trade and become economically stable, and then they will be treated as equals once they are seen as useful in society.

The first source I’ve chosen is the ‘Atlanta compromise’, presented by Booker T Washington as a leading black educator for African-Americans in 1895 to a predominantly white audience in the Southern states. These states were led by white supremacists and only invited Washington to impress visiting Northerners. They weren’t interested in giving black people their rights, which Washington was aware of and took into account when he gave his famous speech. He deliberately tried to pacify the white southerners so they would stop abusing black people and give them a real chance at success. The speech was evidently not that successful in generating white sympathy as a year later, in 1896, Plessey v. Fergusson was passed- legalising segregation. In this speech, Washington was encouraging black people to work their way up in society as it was evident that the way they tried to immediately integrate in the reconstruction era failed. Washington was a key individual in trying to get black people equal social standing in America. He understood the need to pacify the white people and convince them that the black people weren’t intending to usurp their position in society. He was seen as very controversial, especially after the Atlanta conference in 1895 when Washington tried to pacify southern whites by assuring them that the blacks weren’t planning on seizing control any time soon. This made many black people feel that he didn’t necessarily have their best interests in mind, which led to the opening of the Niagara movement, created to oppose Washington’s views. He put out a call to all blacks to ‘cast down your bucket where you are’ meaning they should stay where they are and join society in that area through using a trade they know. However, Washington faced a lot of opposition from black people who felt he was just playing into the hands of the white supremacists. In the ‘Atlanta compromise’, Washington said ‘It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top’. He was being very practical since he was cognizant of the fact human nature wouldn’t allow white people, who were used to owning the black people, to now treat them as equals. By building themselves up from the bottom of the ladder in society they would be able to slowly change society’s perception of them.

Washington understood the importance and the need to fight those laws, and wasn’t just accepting them as part of the gradual process. Booker T Washington started his work in black public affairs in 1880, at the beginning of the post-reconstruction period. He felt that black people were better off establishing themselves economically rather than trying to force themselves onto the white people socially. This made a lot of sense as it was still very soon after black people were released from slavery and white people were still seeing them as inferior. By teaching black people to become productive members of society, Washington was hoping to show the white people that the black people were worth more than they realised.

Louis R Harlan says 'Washington was not an intellectual but a man of action’. Washington launched many educational institutions to educate blacks. In order to attain equal rights, blacks needed to prove that they were had the same worth as white people which they could demonstrate through contributions to society. Washington got right down to action and started the Tuskegee Institute. He was asked to head an institute to educate black people, but he was only given a budget for salaries. So he borrowed some money and bought 100 acres of land. Then he got the students to build a kiln and make bricks to sell, thereby raising money to build the many buildings the institute consisted of when Washington died. The Tuskegee institute educated thousands of black people in line with Washington’s ideals of teaching them a trade so they could become economically stable. In the process of building the institute, Washington taught his students the trades necessary for construction. He brought real, tangible change to America by way of the thousands he educated in his institute over the years. At the time of his death, the institute had an intake of 1500 students a year studying a range of over 30 subjects.

Another incredible achievement of Washington’s is that he raised money from white philanthropists to aid the African- American community. He started a program to set up rural schools, many of which are still running today- evidence he did affect long-term change. He was considered a dominant leader of blacks from the 1880s until his death in 1915, working with church leaders and white philanthropists to build economic strength in the black community. He did this by focusing on self-help and education.

I do not consider Washington the most important individual, although he was the face of the black civil rights movement for 35 years, he didn’t manage to improve the rights of African Americans. He made limited progress as he mostly didn’t advocate for black civil rights’ resulting in the deterioration of the treatment of blacks. However, he did introduce change in the education system and made higher education easily accessible to blacks.

Martin Luther King Jr

The next individual I’m exploring is Martin Luther King Jr - a church minister and skilled orator. King participated in organised debates and public speaking competitions from a young age. This aided him in developing his brilliant oratory skills so he could charismatically appeal to everyone. Furthermore, King was inspired by Gandhi’s methods of successfully achieving the Indians’ freedom through non-violent protests. King was very charismatic and possessed exceptional leadership qualities which were necessary for organising peaceful protests.

King wrote in his book Why we can’t wait that ‘non-violent action, the negro saw, was the way to supplement-not replace- the process of change through legal recourse’. This demonstrates King’s awareness that both non-violence and the legal challenging of constitutional segregation were necessary for the breakdown of segregation, thus the work of Marshall cannot be disregarded in favour of King. Furthermore, King saw his mission throughout the 1950s and 60’s as supplementing the work of Thurgood Marshall, he attributes desegregation primarily to ‘legal recourse’, with ‘non-violent action’ complementing it. King concluded that his work couldn’t bring change on its own, rather he was drawing attention to the changes made constitutionally so that they wouldn’t be ignored. King was conscious that ‘Prior to the 1954 decision, a number of white southern officials had already announced that if the decision went against them they would not comply’. He understood that it was crucial that the actions of these officials should be exposed so that their crimes could be prevented.

The significance of the opposition King faced is apparent by the officials’ ability to publicly disregard a supreme court ruling without consequence. Therefore, to overcome this opposition King needed to unveil the atrocities committed against blacks. Accordingly, King harnessed the media and called upon black people to help him publicise their plight. ‘We are here to say to the white men that we no longer will let them use clubs on us in the dark corners, we’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television.’ This statement epitomises King’s struggle - he brought in reporters to document their peaceful demonstration along with the reaction of the white police. This broadcast meant that Americans could no longer deny or ignore the brutalities and this disturbed their conscience, thereby garnering widespread support for King’s cause. Additionally, King calls the reporter’s cameras the ‘glaring light’ evidencing the power of connecting with emotion to the extent that it can’t be ignored and they must act upon it. Overall, the power of media affirms King’s vital role in the development of civil rights, although the catalyst remains Marshall’s achievement.

Additionally, Aldon D Morris recognised King’s tremendous drive for change as vital in order to instigate change in American society. He describes King as a ‘superbly trained orator’ and the ‘preachers’ preacher’. This was partly because he was ‘highly educated’, unlike most African Americans at the time. As a quality education for blacks wasn’t widely available, many ministers of that period were uneducated.

Risen claims "No man contributed more to the great progress of blacks during the fifties and sixties than Martin Luther King". Although, I suggest, King was only successful because of his access to legal assistance. The fact that many believe that without King the vital social transformation wouldn’t have occurred, demonstrates how influential King was to the civil rights movement.

The next source I have selected is the speech relayed by King, as minister and civil rights activist, at the March on Washington, 1963- ‘I Have a Dream’. This was during the height of the civil rights movement, when protests and changes occurred frequently. This speech differs from the Atlanta compromise in many ways. It was given to an enormous audience of 250,000 people of all races and was broadcast on television. The listeners were mainly supporters of King and the speech was wildly popular. Unlike Washington’s speech, King had many more supporters as they were nearing the end of the civil rights movement, so the audience was more receptive to his demands. This source is very valuable as it had a role in facilitating the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As a direct consequence of the speech, that multitudes heard, the civil rights movement was propelled to a national issue, which enabled civil rights acts to be voted upon in congress.

Moreover, King said ‘the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.’ He likens segregation and discrimination to manacles and chains, suggesting that they haven’t truly been released from slavery as a result of the racism. The graphic language used enabled the listeners to identify with his ideals as they could now comprehend how disabling segregation was.

King’s opinion is contradictory to Washington’s view that change would inevitably come with time. King expresses that white people don’t desire to give blacks their rights, so blacks must demand more and continuously struggle to bring real change. King voiced this opinion when he said ‘there will be neither rest nor tranquillity in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.’ It was evident that King didn’t anticipate change to happen gradually as Washington did, but understood that they mustn’t let matters rest until blacks and whites are equal. He uses very poetic, yet decisive language to convey his aspirations for the future.

King was aware that the attitude of officials such as governor Byrnes- ‘that South Carolina will not now, not for years to come, mix white and coloured children in our schools’. He knew they wouldn’t adhere to court decisions as they needed to maintain their popularity to retain their positions. ‘Should the supreme court decide this case against our position, we will face a serious problem’-Byrnes blatantly disregarded the court’s decision publicly as he knew that ‘The supreme court played into the hands of the southern white power structure’ as Morris states. King had good relations with the presidents who were also instrumental in helping King in his efforts. President Eisenhower declared ‘I believe that the common sense of America will never require [sending in federal troops]’. However, he underestimated the hatred that had developed in the south towards the black people. In 1957 Eisenhower had to send in federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, when governor Faubus employed the use of the Arkansas national guard to prevent the integration of the white school, defying the supreme court order. King harnessed the good relations he had with Eisenhower and as he was very influential he successfully obtained federal support for the ‘Little Rock Nine’.

Clearly, King was a principal individual regarding the development of black civil rights. However, it could be argued that King’s achievements were only possible in conjunction with Marshall’s successes.

Thurgood Marshall

The next individual I’m researching, Thurgood Marshall, was a high-profile lawyer in the NAACP starting in the 1930s. He fought 32 civil rights cases in the supreme court and incredibly won 29 of them. Marshall was an essential individual to the development of black civil rights, as he challenged segregation constitutionally, enabling social activists such as King to claim rights for blacks.

Juan Williams, Marshall’s biographer, conveys the impression that Marshall was the most important individual who brought change to the black people in America. He says ‘Ironically, it was Marshall's success in breaking down legal barriers that led to the rise of Martin Luther King Jr., the man who would succeed - and supersede - Marshall as the nation's most prominent civil rights leader.’ King is more commonly seen as the face of the civil rights movement whilst Marshall is not acknowledged publicly as initiating change. However, Williams is aware that Marshall didn’t bring change to the way black people were treated. He even declares ‘I didn't say transforming American race relations. I said transforming America’. Williams is aware that Marshall didn’t improve relations or treatment of black people, but for the relationships to be worked on, someone had to lay the foundations in the constitution- which Marshall did. Williams stated ‘We make movies about Malcolm X, we get a holiday to honour Dr Martin Luther King, but every day we live with the legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall’. This indicates how important Thurgood Marshall was to introducing change to America. Although he is not honoured with a remembrance day, it is his handiwork that has shaped America’s constitution.

Moreover, Marshall said ‘Equal means getting the same thing, at the same time and in the same place.’ This was Marshall’s ideal, and he spent years of his life fighting for it. Marshall worked for the NAACP, an organisation that fought for blacks’ rights in court. One of the founders of the NAACP was W.E.B. Du Bois, who was the director of research of the NAACP from its founding in 1909. He was a strong critic of Washington as he felt Washington was being too accommodating to the whites rather than fighting for the blacks. Marshall didn’t disagree with taking it gradually but, as he said himself after Eisenhower’s speech ‘I’m the world’s greatst gradualist. I just think ninety-odd years is gradual enough’. Washington was an activist over forty years before Marshall and King, so at that time it made sense for blacks to make themselves useful in the economy until they would eventually be accepted as part of society and treated equally. Once Washington’s approach had evidently failed, Marshall started to challenge segregation legally.

In the years before Thurgood Marshall worked for the NAACP, the organisation achieved some results- although not nearly as many as in the 1950s and ‘60s. In 1915 they had the ‘grandfather clause’ declared unconstitutional in Arkansas and in 1917 they organised a march of 10,000 people to protest lynching. Federal judge Robert L Carter wrote that the NAACP thought that changing the law would help end segregation but they didn’t realise that ‘the basic barrier to full equality for blacks was not racial segregation, a symptom, but white supremacy, the disease.’ In 1940 Marshall created the legal defence and educational fund (LDF) to support any blacks arrested for their colour. The organisation worked along with King and the SCLC in partnership. The SCLC would organise passive resistance and the NAACP, under Marshall’s guidance, would ensure that any protestors arrested unjustly would be released. This is what King was hinting at when he wrote in his book ‘indeed direct action and legal action complement one another; when skilfully employed, each becomes more effective’. He is referring to the working relationship he had with Thurgood Marshall, and how they partnered their organisations to achieve the most they possibly could. Juan Williams says ‘King might still be protesting if none other than Thurgood Marshall had won that case in the United States Supreme Court.’ The protesting brought awareness to the cause yet that awareness wouldn’t have accomplished anything if not for Marshall fighting to make segregation illegal.

Marshall fought the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka County case in the supreme court, essentially overturning the Jim Crow laws instituted after the Plessey v. Ferguson case. After the success in making segregated schools illegal, Marshall continued to fight for many more rights that blacks were being denied. Marshall progressed to become a judge, and then a Supreme Court Justice. This demonstrates how influential he was at the time, that he was able to become the first black Supreme Court Justice in the history of America.

The last source I’m analysing is Marshall’s opening statement in the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954. This court case launched the civil rights movement as it was the first major breakthrough. As a lawyer for the plaintiff, Marshall made this public statement, yet it differs from the ‘Atlanta Compromise’ and ‘I Have a Dream’ speeches. Marshall’s statement was made in the supreme court and was aimed at the judges rather than attempting to gain support for the black cause. Marshall was highlighting the illogicality of the blacks’ treatment – ‘the only way to arrive at that decision is to find that for some reason Negroes are inferior to all other human beings’. Marshall is stating that he must win unequivocally constitutionally as the constitution states that all Americans are equal, so it’s impossible to claim some are inferior to others. The forceful tone of his address, and the logic of the premise, leaves the judges with no option other than supporting him.

Furthermore, Marshall ends his speech with ‘this Court should make it clear that that is not what our Constitution stands for.’ He was urging the judges to uphold the constitution by ending segregation set at maintaining the social hierarchy. Marshall was stating explicitly that ‘as to the Fourteenth Amendment’ schools must integrate to maintain equality. The imperative language illustrates how strongly he is against segregation.

Overall, Marshall was vital regarding the development of black civil rights as he instigated change by fighting for it in courts. Marshall represented black people in challenging segregation; once the law ruled in favour, activists like King could rally to obtain their entitlements. Both the social activists and the lawyers in court were needed to bring about social reforms.


It is important to assess the value of these two key historians who display differing opinions on who was the most important individual in reference to the development of black civil rights. Aldon D Morris, an African-American, experienced Jim Crow racism as a child in Mississippi, and his writings would have been influenced by his experiences- his admiration is directed towards those who were the face of the civil rights movement whom he would see as his heroes. Morris published The Origins of The Civil Rights Movement in 1984, as an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan. Morris’ viewpoint, based on what he went through, is that although legal victories were important, King’s efforts brought attention to the black struggle and led to change. This is useful as it gives us the view of someone who lived through it. However, it’s limited as he’s biased towards the activists he saw. Therefore, he focuses on the 1950s and onwards, and King would have been significantly more celebrated than others such as Marshall whose campaign wasn’t as public, therefore Morris’ interpretation would be more subjective.

Conversely, Juan Williams - Marshall’s official biographer - believes that Thurgood Marshall was the most important individual as the change couldn’t have occurred without the essential amendments to the constitution. Originating from Panama, he didn’t experience discrimination as a child, and therefore his assessment of the era would be more objective than Morris’. Williams published his biography of Marshall in 1987, similar timing to Morris. This was not that long after the Civil Rights act in 1964 that officially ended Jim Crow laws, so their opinions would still be influenced by their direct experiences, and thereby limited. Williams is a more valuable historian as he’s less inclined to either side, as he knew Marshall, the subject of his book, personally. Therefore, his assessment would be more accurate as his writings are based on first-hand knowledge as opposed to Morris whose writings are mostly based on secondary sources.

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In conclusion, I believe that Thurgood Marshall generated the most reforms through changing the constitution in court and fighting for blacks’ rights in the supreme court. However, all of Marshall’s work wouldn’t have brought any social reforms if Martin Luther King hadn’t raised public awareness through harnessing the media and organising passive resistance to gain publicity for the cause. Booker T Washington’s original education schemes did affect many African Americans by making a solid education easily accessible, thereby setting up children for future prosperity. Nonetheless, I suggest he is not the most important individual as he didn’t appear to effect lasting change across America.

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Washington, King, and Marshall in Civil Rights History. (2022, December 09). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 15, 2024, from
“Washington, King, and Marshall in Civil Rights History.” GradesFixer, 09 Dec. 2022,
Washington, King, and Marshall in Civil Rights History. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 Jul. 2024].
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