William Howard Taft & Civil Rights

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

If you would like to learn more about the early days of the Civil Rights Movement during the Progressive Era, this lesson has information you may find useful. In this lesson we will discuss the role that William Howard Taft played in the Civil Rights Movement during his presidency.

Taft Was No Roosevelt

When William Howard Taft became president in 1908 he was seen by the Republicans and the members of his party who identified as Progressives as someone who would continue the work of his predecessor. Theodore Roosevelt had been the Progressives' darling. From the White House he had worked to push through legislation that endorsed social change such as the Pure Food and Drug Act and the enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Roosevelt had been eligible to run for a second term, but announced that he would not run in 1908 and hand-selected Taft as his successor. Taft lacked the charisma and tenacity to push legislation through Congress as Roosevelt had. Taft also had no intention of trying to force his will on Congress. By the time Taft's four years in office were over, his perceived lack of action on Progressive agendas had made him their enemy. He had also angered Roosevelt, who by 1912 was ready to run again.

Between 1908 and 1912, Taft had accomplished many things such as seeing almost 80 antitrust bills enacted and the creation of the Interstate Commerce Act. Things like this should have made him popular among Progressives. However, actions such as the Payne Aldrich Tariff and the firing of Gifford Pinchot were all Progressives cared about. By their standards Taft was no Progressive, nor was he capable of filling Roosevelt's shoes.

Civil Rights during the Progressive Era

Booker T. Washington was the leading and most accepted leader of African Americans in the United States in 1901. According to Washington, African Americans should not seek political or social advancement from whites, but study trades and work vocational jobs in an effort to prove their worth to America. In contrast there were two men who disagreed with this ideology.

W.E.B. Dubois
Dubois

W.E.B. Dubois and William Monroe Trotter had both graduated from Harvard University with PhDs in 1895. Both men were vehemently against Washington's ideology of hard work first and equal rights second, and worked to encourage African Americans to seek immediate full equality and to pursue intellectual gains.

Washington's ideology got him invited to the White House in 1901 by Theodore Roosevelt, to discuss race relations and the plight of African Americans. However, there was outrage once Americans heard that an African American had been invited to the White House to speak to the president.

William Monroe Trotter
Trotter

In this atmosphere, after Washington's 1901 visit to the White House, the agendas of any other civil rights leader to either the Republican or Democratic parties fell on deaf ears. If even the very popular Roosevelt couldn't politically survive inviting African Americans to the White House, Taft would have to walk a very fine line when his time in office came in 1908.

Booker T. Washington & Theodore Roosevelt
Washington & Roosevelt

Taft and Civil Rights

In regards to civil rights, Taft did little more than Roosevelt had. Roosevelt had invited Washington to the White House, but the row that ensued after prevented Taft from even attempting to make the same offer.

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