AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present (2010)

Lecture 6

 - Uplift, Accommodation, and Assimilation (continued)


In this lecture, Professor Holloway explains the two major schools of thought that emerged at the end of the century to solve the problems of black social and economic distress. The accommodationists, like Booker T. Washington, believed that the quickest way to improve the quality of black life was to forge a social peace with powerful whites, temporarily accepting the continued separation of the races and advocating vocational education as a pragmatic way for blacks to improve their lives. Opposed to Washington were people like Anna Julia Cooper and W.E.B. Du Bois who embraced assimilation and saw higher education as the cure-all to racialized problems. Du Bois, in particular, is famous for his assertion that it would be the “Talented Tenth” of the race who would lead blacks to a better life.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

African American History: From Emancipation to the Present (2010)

AFAM 162 - Lecture 6 - Uplift, Accommodation, and Assimilation (continued)

Chapter 1. The Chronological Context for Today’s Lecture [00:00:00]

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  On Monday we talked about uplift and its various ways one can interpret uplift–and I know you had a lot of that information in the Tera Hunter reading, but it’s really one of these sort of foundational issues for this class I wanted to sort of labor over for a while. Another foundational issue is one of those keywords talking about, I talked about on Monday, which is race management. Essentially, that’s what this lecture today is about. This is a lecture looking at Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois and the politics of accommodation and assimilation. It is a debate that has manifested itself in many different forms, in different voices throughout so much of the post-emancipation African American experience, and it’s a debate that’s still with us today, in ways that I’m pretty sure will be coming back into play on and off during the rest of this term.

So the historian in me always wants to contextualize. I want you–and I’m not crazy about dates, but I want to give you a timeline. It’s important for you to actually put down in your notes. I’m not putting up on the screen cause it would be a one slide show. It wouldn’t make any sense, but understand this timeline. Generally speaking, at the post-emancipation moment, 1866 forward, you have the appearance of a range of Jim Crow laws separating the races. I can’t tell you a specific start date, because they vary by state. But it’s important to know that they start with miscegenation, this fear over black and white sex, black male and white female specifically.

So there are laws against miscegenation, at first. Then there are laws in some states about separating the races as far as education. “Now we’re going to actually have to educate these black folks, we can’t educate them in the same space.”  And then within about a decade, now we’re talking mid-1870s, the laws start appearing on separating the races in areas of public accommodation, transportation. And that’s really where most people point to the start of most Jim Crow laws, is around the mid-1870s. That’s the first point in the timeline, the mid-1870s.

You already know about Reconstruction, the rise of Redemption, of course. 1895 I pointed to in the last lecture as being a rather important year. You have in 1895 the National Baptist Convention formed, as I talked about on Monday. You have in that same year the great leader of the race, Frederick Douglass, dies. A major political figure in black and white America. You have also in 1895 Booker T. Washington, the subject of half of this lecture, giving his famous Atlanta Cotton Exposition Address. So the National Baptist Convention is formed, Frederick Douglass dies, Booker T. Washington rises in prominence, all in the same year.

Eighteen ninety-six, the National Association of Colored Women is formed, a group I canvassed in the latter part of yes–of Monday’s lecture. The same year, the Supreme Court offers its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. More on that in today’s lecture. In 1897, the American Negro Academy is formed and in 1898, Alexander Crummell, with whom I began Monday’s lecture, dies. So in this three year window, you have the assertion of religious, organizational, and secular independence with the National Baptist Convention, the death of an icon, Frederick Douglass, the rise of another icon in Booker T. Washington, the formation of a women’s political organizing association and social organization, a very important Supreme Court decision, the founding of one of these elitist attempts to solve race problems, to uplift the race, and in 1898, the death of one of those icons, representing the leaders in the Talented Tenth. Undergirding all of that are these Jim Crow laws. So that’s the context, chronological context for today’s lecture.

Chapter 2. Booker T. Washington and the Politics of Accommodation and Assimilation [00:04:39]

Let me begin playing an excerpt. It’s scratchy, I know. I’m just going to play about, I think about forty-five seconds of it, but it’s also kind of remarkable.


Booker T. Washington: A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendl vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal, “Water, water; we die of thirst!” The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” A second time the signal, “Water, send us water!” ran from the distressed vessel, and was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” And a third and fourth signal for water was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River. To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are”— cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded.

Now that’s–that’s frankly just show and tell. That’s Booker T. Washington, reading from his famous Cotton–Atlanta Cotton Exposition address. I know it’s hard to hear, but I’m going to go over it. And it’s also in the reading for this week. But it really is–we’re entering a new technological age for the whole country, and sound certainly is part of this technological innovation. And we’ll be seeing more of this as this course goes along, more sound files and movie clips, certainly. Now again, I know it’s in your reading, but it’s important that we belabor part of the Cotton Exposition address, because it sets up–it lays down sort of the political foundation for so much of the late nineteenth century political philosophy. The clip you just heard, that’s Booker T. Washington saying,

“A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal, “Water, water; we die of thirst!” The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” A second time the signal, “Water, water, send us water!” ran up from the distressed vessel, and was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” And a third and fourth signal for water was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River. To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: ‘Cast down your bucket where you are; cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded. Cast it down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions. And in this connection it is well to bear in mind that whatever other sins the South may be called to bear, when it comes to business, pure and simple, it is in the South that the Negro is given a man’s chance in the commercial world, and in nothing is this Exposition–and in nothing is this Exposition is more eloquent than in emphasizing this chance. Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion aswe are–as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour, and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities. To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits for the prosperity of the South, were I permitted I would repeat what I say to my own race, ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’ Cast it down among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested in days when to have proved treacherous meant the ruins of your firesides. Cast down your bucket among these people who have, without strikes and labor wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities, and brought forth treasures from the bowels of the earth, and helped make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the South. Casting down your bucket among my people, helping and encouraging them as you are doing on these grounds, and to educate–and to education of head, hand, and heart, you will find that they will buy your surplus land, make blossom the waste places of your fields, and run your factories. While doing this, you can be sure in the future, as in the past, that you and your families will be surrounded by the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has ever seen. As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, in nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one. In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress. The wisest of my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the modern world–to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house.”

Three excerpts from this critical speech, 1895. The clip I played and the excerpt I began reading revolves around the phrase “cast down your bucket.”  It’s a compelling story, a ship lost at sea, not realizing it’s at the mouth of the Amazon River, thinking it’s going to die, and safety was all around it. Washington is telling the members of the Atlanta–Atlanta Cotton Exposition, gathering of business leaders, trying to raise money to save the South, or improve the South in economic terms. Washington’s telling them that they need to trust blacks to do the right thing. He’s telling the white industrialists, the agricultural leaders, you know, “You’re trying to import immigrant labor. Don’t do it. There’s a not a tradition of labor organizing, union organizing, and strikes among blacks.”  That’s because they weren’t allowed in unions. That’s another issue of course. But Washington’s telling the white owners of the factories, and the mills, and the fields, “This is a workforce you can trust, who’s toiled by you, who’s nurtured you and nursed you, and we’ll be faithful. We’ve proved our faithfulness in the past.”  So it’s a nativist argument. “We don’t want foreign labor in here.” 

It’s also an argument about race management. He begins by telling blacks, “Look, you can’t agitate. You need to recognize that this is our home, the South,and  the rural South. This is where we are and this where we need to make our futures. And with patience, and with time, as we prove our fidelity, we’ll be able to demonstrate that we are worthy of buying that land, tilling our own fields, becoming economically independent.”  As he says himself, “The wisest among our race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly.”  It’s a take it slow approach. Now–oh one other very important phrase to know from the Atlanta Cotton Exposition address is this sentence:  “That in all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers; yet one is the hand on all things essential to mutual progress.”  Critically important sentence, and you’ll start to see why. This is 1895. The next year, the Supreme Court hands down its–hands down its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. The majority of the court, in an eight to one decision, holds the following:

“We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction on it.”

The majority is saying–claiming that separation of the races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority, is all in the colored race’s head. Badge of inferiority. The dissent written by–well he’s the only person writing it–Justice John Harlan, says that

“… the arbitrary separation of the citizens on the basis of race, while they’re on a public highway, is a badge of servitude, wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution.”

The majority is saying the badge of inferiority is nonexistent. It’s a construction. It’s in their minds. And Harlan says exactly the opposite. It is a badge of servitude to force the separation of the races in public accommodations. Now what was Plessy?  What was this case about?  Many of you know, I’m sure, the outlines of it. June7th, 1892, Homer Plessy, a U.S. citizen, resident of Louisiana, buys a first class rail ticket. He boards the train and takes a seat in the first class coach. It’s a whites only coach. You wouldn’t be surprised, I imagine. He’s asked to move. Conductor understands that he’s not white. And Plessy refuses and is thrown off the train and thrown into jail. He’s broken the Jim Crow laws of segregation of the races in Louisiana, the statute established in 1890.

Homer Plessy argued that such segregation violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. The Supreme Court said in response, three years later, that racial separation did not abridge the privileges or immunities of U.S. citizens, or deprive persons of liberty or property without the due process of the laws, you know, the tenets of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court says it doesn’t do any of these things, separating the races. There’s still due process. You still have rights as a citizen.

Now Plessy, it’s worth knowing, was convinced he would win this case. He actually pursued the legal crisis in the first place. He didn’t just walk up to the ticket booth thinking, “I’m going to buy a first class rail ticket and have a nice quiet ride, you know, to my destination.”  He knew the law. He thought it was wrong, and so he decided to test it, and he thought he would win. And Plessy really also thought that he would win it because his own literal embodiment would prove how absurd segregation practices and laws really were. Going by the very clumsy and messy sort of dividing one’s up one’s blood by races, Plessy was seventh–seven-eighths white, and was so fair skinned, he could easily pass for white. In fact, he had to confirm with the conductors, “Yeah, I’m black.”  The law of the land is, if you had just one, quote, “drop of black blood” you were black.

So Plessy ostensibly is a white man, ostensibly, has black heritage, so he is black legally. Would only, you know, only by declaring his race would people realize that he was breaking a law in the first place. He says, “The law is ridiculous, and I’m going to test it, and I’m going to win it.” Well, he misjudged the justices. So you have, starting in 1866 but speeding up and going from miscegenation to education to transportation, generally speaking, a range of Jim Crow laws separating the races. When Plessy v. Ferguson is decided, announced in 1895, separate but equal is established as in line with the Constitution, and it will remain the law until Brown v. Board of Education’s passed, ah passed?  Declared in 185–1954. So we’re talking about almost sixty years of constitutionally supported federal law, and then state laws, established with Plessy v. Ferguson.

Now the Supreme Court offers its decision in 1896, but the case had been in process since 1892. Why does this matter?  I mean we all know these things take a while to bubble up to the Supreme Court. It matters because there’s no doubt that when Booker T. Washington rose to speak at the Atlanta–Atlanta Cotton Exposition in 1895, he knew that efforts were underway to challenge racial separation. Washington, however, openly and famously accommodated to white southern and northern business interests. This was not a little quiet case kind of trickling its way up through the system. Washington was a well educated man. He knew about race politics, of course. And so he made a conscious decision in 1895 to declare that he’s on the side of southern business interests and northern business interests, separating the races to reduce racial anxiety of these whites. He knew that Plessy v. Ferguson was being fleshed out–fleshed out in the legal system.

So when you take these two moments together, Washington’s speech and Plessy, you can see that for many, this embodies sort of the low point that I referenced in Monday’s lecture, the low point of the post-emancipation African American experience, certainly in the realm of political rights, equal rights, full citizenship rights. Now it’s pretty easy to launch into an extended critique of Washington, especially in light of the context of the era when he’s giving this famous speech. But let me give you a bit of biography and put us in his shoes in a bit to see his world view, and see where we end up.

Washington is born in 1856. He’s born a slave. He worked as a child, before emancipation and after emancipation. He knew–his life was a life of work. He’s out in the coalfields in West Virginia and then finds out about this school, this college, called the Hampton Institute, in the far east coast of Virginia, and he decides this is the place for him. And so he literally works his way there via odd jobs. He has no money, so he’s working odd jobs to get some more money to–to find a way to get to the next way station, before he finds himself in Hampton, Virginia, at the Institute. And he’s working odd jobs there, while in school. And at the end of the term, at the end of the school year, he worked his way back home, literally working his way back home.

 Through his labor and his intellect, he becomes the schools–the protégé of the school’s principal. Hampton, it’s important to know, was an institute dedicated to vocational education. That was the rationale of the Hampton–Hampton Institute. Learning crafts and skills was critical. This is about how to become a better manager of crops, how to become an expert cabinetmaker. It was about trying to develop technical expertise in agricultural endeavors, for instance. The idea of, you know, high culture, elite refinement, these things could wait.

In 1881, Washington is twenty-one–twenty-five years old, and with the support of his mentor at the Hampton Institute, establishes his own institute, called the Tuskegee Institute. Now Hampton and Tuskegee are still around today. They are very different than they were before–they were at this, this era. We’re talking about the founding moments. So Washington establishes the Tuskegee Institute, in Tuskegee, Alabama, and it’s really quite remarkable. He’s–he’s establishing something at the heart of white farming land in Alabama.

And what you see in establishing Tuskegee is Washington’s incredible skills at building coalitions, at not appearing threatening to a white elite, or even white small farmers, yeoman farmers. He starts buying up land for this institute. He–he gets his first students, and they start building, literally building, this institute. And eventually, Tuskegee, the institute, becomes the life blood of Tuskegee, the community. It becomes the economic engine of this town. And this is in a way a manifestation of Booker T. Washington’s long term strategy. I’m not saying Tuskegee was a racial oasis, or that blacks were fully integrated, but through Washington’s model, he economically integrated blacks into Tuskegee, the town. And this is his long term plan.

Eventually, blacks will get their full rights, but they do it through long, slow, hard work, through labor, and becomes–by becoming so economically vital to wherever they are, one could not help but strive to incorporate them in society. This very go-slow approach, Washington’s great skills at interacting with and negotiating with white business leaders, results in he becomes the darling of the philanthropists and starts getting money thrown at him, by especially northern business interests, allowing him to build up Tuskegee further, and allowing him over the course of the next twenty or so years, to build up–especially after 1895, the last twenty years of his life–he dies in 1915–to build up a set of–a portfolio of power that leaves one with no other conclusion to draw except he was the most powerful black person in the country, undisputed leader of the race. If a newspaper didn’t like his ideology and ran editorials, he would buy the newspaper and fire the editors, put his own editors in place, kind of like Rupert–Rupert Murdoch, right? I mean he was a sort of mogul in black America. An advisor to President Teddy–Teddy Roosevelt, much to the great anger and fear of many people in white America.

Now time to ask some critical questions. On one side, you can ask the question, well why did philanthropists chip in?  Was it because of his charm?  Well, I mean, these were businessmen. They–they had their interests at heart here. They saw that Washington was training a fantastic worker base. He’d follow the Washington model, very smart workers, trained in certain skills and crafts, ideal for their mills, factories, and such. And he’s also training a permanent second class citizen, so this will be a docile workforce. That’s exactly what the factory owners want. A smart workforce is not going to raise any problems.

Now asking a question from the other side–I mean, it’s so easy to sort of condemn Washington for all these different–these reasons I’ve outlined just now, but let’s think about where he was living, what he was advocating. What really was possible in the Deep South in the late nineteenth century?  We already talked about lynching, rise of all kinds of laws to wipe out the black vote. The black vote is disappearing radically during this period in the very last years of the nineteenth century. Seventy-five percent of blacks still lived in the Confederate South, and the great majority of that percentage were agricultural workers. Blacks were on the farms. Half of the total southern population was black, but blacks owned just over ten percent of the farms. There was essentially no agricultural education–I mean the Tuskeegees are–the Tuskegee kinds of model are the exceptions–and black farm production is low.

So you have a population that is a grieved population politically, socially, economically, with very limited mobility, almost no mobility, living in a–in a state, one could make the argument, of terror. So when you think about the lived conditions of African Americans, the great majority of them, what were the alternatives, except for try to find a way to develop economic independence, and then in time become recognized as fully participating in the–in the citizenship rights of the United States. What might have been a logical alternative? 

Chapter 3. W.E.B. Du Bois and the Politics of Accommodation and Assimilation [00:29:59]

Well, the alternative to Washington and his accommodationist politics is embodied in W. E. B. Du Bois. Now it’s important to remember that Anna Julia Cooper joined the debate first, arguing in A Voice from the South, published in 1892, that the race would be saved by investing in higher education. This comes a full decade before Du Bois steps up to the plate and challenges Washington. But the fact is, for better and for worse, the debate has been crystallized into a Du Bois-Washington debate. Certainly Washington because he was so powerful, and also certainly Du Bois, partly because gender dynamics and our national culture of course, but because the man plays central roles in many different moments of articulating, shifting black politics over the course of the next sixty years.

Du Bois’s response to Washington was straightforward. He referred to the Atlanta–Atlanta Cotton Exposition address as the Atlanta Compromise. And he said in his very famous critique of Washington, and I quote here, that,

“manly self respect is worth more than lands and houses, and that a people who voluntarily surrender such respect, or cease striving for it, are not worth civilizing.”

Manly self respect is the most important thing. It’s more important than lands and houses, and if you don’t have the courage to stand up to the system that’s fighting, that’s pushing you down, you’re not worth civilizing. Now this phrasing here is rather important, harkening back to the last two lectures: manliness and civilization. Du Bois embodies this very elitist, Eurocentric world view that supports a manly ideal and thinks it’s the–it’s the really–it’s the real goal to demonstrate one’s capacity to act in a civilized fashion, to be civilized, if you’re really going to have a chance at entertaining full citizenship rights. Du Bois challenged Washington’s call for blacks to give up their political power, their insistence on civil rights, and their desire for the higher education of black youth. Du Bois advocated that the Talented Tenth, this idea he developed from Henry Morehouse, advocated the Talented Tenth be educated at the finest institutions in order to save the race.

Now why is Du Bois so invested in this agenda?  Mainly because it reflected a large part of his own life experience, and a glance at his biography makes this much clearer. Du Bois was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, just about an hour and a half–about an hour and a half from here. It is beginning to be recognized actually, in Great Barrington for being one of its more famous sons, as the phrase might be. He goes to college in the South at Fiske University in Nashville and he gets his PhD at Harvard in 1895, again, that important year, after having studied for some time at Berlin. He publishes the groundbreaking–groundbreaking sociological study called The Philadelphia Negro in 1898, I believe, essentially creating the field of urban sociology in the process, and he helps establish the America Negro Academy.

So just in this–in the moment when Booker T. Washington’s rising up, and bursts onto the national scene with his Atlanta Cotton Exposition address, Du Bois is getting the finest education in the world, quite literally, gets his PhD, the very first generation of African Americans to get that degree, establishes the field of urban sociology, helps establish the American Negro Academy, and then starts an academic career for the very first phase of his life, teaching at Atlanta University.

So Du Bois espouses and embodies the value of higher education and the role that the black intellectual would play in the salvation of the race. He was at the time one of the most educated–highly educated people in the world, and he had a very full sense of his own talent–the man had an ego bigger than this room–and his sense of value to the world. He really believed that politically and intellectually engaged scholars were the very best–very best people to interpret the white European world. Again, that idea, sort of that’s where the seat of civilization is. And you can see this belief manifested or in the pages of what people regard as Du Bois’s great classic, The Souls of Black Folk. How many of you have read The Souls of Black Folk?  Just a handful, well more than a handful. About okay about a sixth of you, fifth of you, sixth of you. Or read in it?  Maybe more hands would go up. It’s really amazing, because when I started grad school, I went to grad school here, I was introduced to Du Bois and The Souls of Black Folk in the spring of my first year in grad school. He wasn’t part of the undergraduate curriculum, except in just a few kind of strange places. Now it’s the undergraduate curriculum like crazy, and I understand it’s even being taught in some high schools. I mean this is a radical change in just twenty years, in terms of Du Bois being brought back into our national narrative.

Now The Souls of Black Folk¸ you have an excerpt from it in the Marable and Mullings reader. I’m not going to belabor the history of that early remarkable book, but I do want to focus on one quick passage, really about the most cited passage of the entire book. And it’s–it’s a passage that refers to the conundrum of double-consciousness. In Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois recounts his youth growing up in a diverse community where he never felt the sting of race until his adolescence, this very famous moment when he was– his Valentine’s Day card that he was giving to a young woman was refused. He wrote about this dawning awareness of the racial differences in his community, and his own physical appearance, and he said that this awareness amounted to, or he equated it to, a veil that separated the races. And he writes:

“… the Negro is sort of a seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-conscious–consciousness, this sense of always looking to one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks through the–excuse me, I skipped a line here– It is a peculiar sensation, this double–consciousness, this sense of always looking to one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness: an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

A veil separating the races. The passage is important for the way in which Du Bois describes the differences in perspective between white and black worlds. As Ralph Ellison would mention some forty or fifty years later in his book, the differences that rendered blacks invisible to white America. I’m referencing Ellison’s classic The Invisible Man here. Du Bois says, it is as if this veil keeps blacks hidden from view. But veils, as we know, allow the wearer to see the world outside. This is black America’s special gift, according to Du Bois, that they can see America from a perspective that was all but invisible to whites. This gift, however, was also a curse. It kept blacks removed from the daily commerce of culture, society, politics, economics, so forth.

Now why do I linger on this point? I linger on it because it gets to the heart of the problem that Du Bois felt that black scholars like himself had to deal with. They were best positioned to solve these problems, and yet they couldn’t be heard and couldn’t be seen by the white world, but they were in the best position to interpret those worlds to each other. And in this way, Washington and Du Bois are actually quite alike. They both thought to be interpreters of the black experience to white America. They both sought in some ways to control the means of access of each racial cohort to the other. In the long run, many of their goals were the same. The means, however, were profoundly different.

It’s important to say here that Washington was a rather complicated figure. Washington was very publicly in support of the separation of the races, accommodating to northern white business interests. As I mentioned before, he owned all these newspapers, would control them if they said anything bad about him. But he also funneled money to Du Bois and other activists, knowing that public support would destroy him but recognizing that sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes, their points had merit. So he would actually give Du Bois–who had no kind of resource like that–give Du Bois through third parties resources to continue the battle. But in the arena of public engagement, public political engagement, these two could not have been more different.

You can see this in high relief when in 1905, two years after Souls of Black Folk was published, when Du Bois and other college educated black professionals meet at Niagara Falls. Now they’re meeting on the Canadian side, not the New York side, which they intended to do, since the New York side refused them lodging. But these black, educated black men and a few women–Ida B. Wells was one of them–come together to form an organization that is dedicated to full citizenship rights for black America. The so called Niagara Movement demanded a number of things: freedom of speech and full citizenship, manhood suffrage, the abolition of all distinctions based on race, the recognition of basic principles of human fellowship, respect for the working person. I went through that quickly. It’s in the reader, the manifesto, the Niagara Movement’s call to arms. But it’s important to–we’ll look back at that, and think of these themes that it’s talked about. Full citizenship rights, the vote, abolition of distinctions based on race, human fellowship, respect for the working person. I want you to think back to this moment in six or seven weeks–well, in about three or four weeks then six or seven weeks–this is an abiding theme of political organizing in black America throughout much of the twentieth century.

Washington was invited to join the Niagara Movement. He was by far the most powerful black person in the country. He was invited mainly out of courtesy because of his power. He declines. Some of his greatest enemies are the people organizing the Niagara movement, but at least they had to put out that olive branch. But again, Washington knew he would lose his white support base if he made that move. The Niagara Movement meets annually until 1909. That year, some members of the group were invited to a national conference on contemporary race relations and the struggle for civil rights. This group of white activists, many of them with abolitionist roots, back to the previous century, came together because of a race riot and a lynching. Heretofore popularly felt to be a southern phenomenon, despite like the New York City draft riots as evidence to the contrary, this race riot and lynching happened in Springfield, Illinois in 1908.

The riots were horrific in their material significance, certainly, loss of life and property, but the symbolic significance was far greater, at least for these organizers. The riot occurred on the hundredth anniversary of Lincoln’s–Abraham Lincoln’s birth, and several black citizens in Springfield are lynched within a few blocks of Lincoln’s home and within two miles of his gravesite. Now the riot started when a white woman accused a black worker of raping her and assaulting her. She later recanted, admitting that her white boyfriend had beat her, but it was too late. Angry mobs formed and started–started looking for the perpetrator, who was spirited out of town quickly. But the mobs start forming and attacking blacks under the impression that they were the ones harboring the rapist.

That the great emancipator’s memory could be so sullied horrified these whites–these white liberals, some of whom organized this conference and invited members of the Niagara Movement. Together, these white liberals and a few representatives, these black liberals from the Niagara Movement, decide to form a new social betterment organization that would be dedicated to the pursuit of civil rights for blacks, and that organization is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people, the NAACP. Du Bois joined, was one of the people from the Niagara Movement who met– went to this conference, and he joined the NAACP upon its founding in 1910, and serves as its sole black officer. He was the director of research and publicity for the NAACP, and the editor of its magazine, Crisis. And Du Bois would remain at the NAACP for the next twenty-five years. He would have this very vexed relationship with the organization.

So from its inception, the NAACP needs to be understood as well one, essentially a white organization with Du Bois as the sole black officer, dedicated to the improvement of quality of black life, certainly. But the people running the NAACP, left progressives, some of them considered radicals, were all political agitators, but they were agitating toward an assimilationist goal. This is why Du Bois felt so at home with this sort of politics. The NAACP, not to make light of the commitment of these–these radical progressive and Du Bois as well, agitating towards assimilation, believed that with the proper amount, type, and style of agitation, blacks would eventually integrate into white society, economy, and politics. Now the phrasing of that is very important, that blacks would integrate “into” white society, economy, and politics. The process would not work in reverse.

So just as we can, you know, get worked up, perhaps, about Washington’s accommodationist politics and say, you know, we’re really down for the idea of Du Bois’s radical politics and assimilationist ideals, you need to also be aware of what these assimilationist ideals were about. Blacks would integrate into white society, society that was civilized, and that was a descendant of the height of civilized culture in the world, and that’s Britain. These are complicated narratives, but we can ask really interesting questions–or because they’re complicated, we can ask really interesting questions, sort of such that when all is said and done, with Washington’s politics being open for critique, is it easier to let the Niagara Movement’s or the NAACP’s politics be free from critique?  There’s plenty of criticism to be thrown around and lots of critical questions to ask, and we’ll start asking those questions in section and in the weeks to come. Thanks very much. Have a great weekend.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]