CHAPTER 22. W.E.B. DUBOIS AND THE REVOLT AGAINST BOOKER T. WASHINGTON

Northern Black Dissent

In 1890 T. Thomas Fortune organized the National Afro-American League which anticipated the NAACP. Fortune was the crusading editor of the New York Age, which was the leading Negro journal of the era. The organization dedicated itself to protest based on racial solidarity and self-help. It became defunct in 1893 because of lack of support and funds.

In 1898 the National Afro-American League was reconstituted as the National Afro-American Council. Fortune had by that time become a supporter of Washington. It immediately became a forum for the ideological battles between Washington and his critics. Washington took over the council by 1902 and ousted the militants.

The Council challenged in the courts those portions of the new constitutions of Louisiana and Alabama which disfranchised the Negro. (These court challenges were secretly financed by Washington himself.) By 1907 the radicals captured control of the Council. Thereafter it quickly disintegrated. (Broderick and Meier 1965:18)

There is a lot of confusion about just what is populism and whether it is a progressive force or a conservative force. It is in one sense the rural analog to progressivism. But on the other hand, especially in the south, populism was a racist populism. Some progress can be made to liberalize the poor whites, but there is constant tension between them and their "inferiors," the blacks.

This presents a fundamental problem for liberals. They like to praise the lower class whites but blacks as well. They do not want to recognize the racism of working class whites.

Dissent from Jim Crow in the North

Even in the heyday of accommodation, at the turn of the century, protest in the South did not entirely disappear. Among the most remarkable forms of organized protest --- not widely reported at the time -- were boycotts of segregated trolley cars in perhaps as many as a dozen Southern cities. Atlanta had an apparently successful boycott in 1894; but between 1989 and 1906 the boycotts in Atlanta and in other cities were all failures.

The law about segregation on public transportation passed back in 1900. Black people had boycotted Montgomery streetcars until the City Council changed its ordinance so that nobody would be forced to give up a seat unless there was another seat to move to.

Criticism of Booker T. Washington

The real reason why Booker T. Washington lost influence in neo-abolitionist circles is the ever-increasing horror of the ever increasing power and evil of the Jim Crow system. Du Bois , as others, found his people being lynched in the South and ghettoized in the North. (Lewis 1994:275-276) As always, events ran ahead of liberal intellectuals' abilities to foresee events (they are too busy defending their current paradigm). After events become so drastically out of sync with the old paradigm, the liberals finally respond because a new liberal political position is needed to respond to the new events. Among the terrible evens was the Brownsville incident. The Brownsville Raid, in which black infantry soldiers were alleged to have shot up the town, killing a white bartender and wounding a police lieutenant, happened August 1905. Roosevelt ordered the discharge en masse of 167 of the First Battalion's 170 soldiers without honor and with forfeiture of pension. (Lewis 1994:331-332) The Brownsville Raid was followed by the Atlanta Race riot of 1906. Du Bois had to rush to Atlanta by train to sit on the steps of South Hall to protect his wife, Nina, and his child, Yolande, with a shotgun. Soon after Du Bois started his first journalistic attempt, with the publication of The Moon, to overthrow the Washington system.

The year 1901 was the year of the publication of Washington's autobiography Up from Slavery. In 1901, when criticism of Washington had practically vanished, there appeared the most famous of all the anti-Tuskegee papers, the Boston Guardian, edited by William Monroe Trotter. The first Negro elected to Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, Trotter was an uncompromising foe of all forms of segregation and discrimination. Trotter said Washington was an agent of the forces of oppression.

Standing against Washington was W.E.B. Du Bois, whose book of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, appeared in 1903.

The most influential dissent from Washington's policy came from W. E. B. Du Bois, a Massachusetts-born Negro whose family had been free from the stigma of slavery for over a hundred years. Du Bois was educated at Fisk University and then at Harvard; he earned his Ph.D. in history at Harvard in 1895. He then was briefly an instructor at Wilberforce and at the University of Pennsylvania, then for thirteen years headed the Department of History and Economics at Atlanta University. There he devoted himself to training a generation of college-educated Negroes as racial leaders and to editing annual surveys of various aspects of Negro life.

Shortly after Du Bois joined the faculty at Atlanta, John Hope, son of a Scottish immigrant and an African-American woman, started teaching at nearby Atlanta Baptist College (now Morehouse) as a professor of Latin and Greek. Both had grave doubts concerning the Booker T. Washington program. Hope became the president of Atlanta Baptist College.

At first friendly with Washington, Du Bois drifted away when Washington's emphasis on industrial education drew resources away from liberal arts colleges like Atlanta, and when the Tuskegeean's accommodating policies produced so little real gain for the race. Hints of dissent appeared in Du Bois' review of Washington's autobiography, Up From Slavery, in 1901. His 1903 book launched a full-scale attack that was reasoned, thoughtful, and unequivocal. With the publication of this book, Du Bois took the first rank in the struggle against Washington's program.

Those who were semi-critical of Washington include the Grimkes, Kelly Miller of Howard University, J. W. E. Bowen, novelist Charles W. Chesnutt, editor of the Cleveland Gazette Harry C. Smith, chairman of the Anti-Lynching League Ida B. Wells-Barnett, William Monroe Trotter, and editor of the Boston Guardian George W. Forbes. Many of these were heirs to the Frederick Douglass tradition. (Broderick 1959:69)

What really caused the break of faith with Washington? It was not really the brilliant insights of the intellectuals but rather the constant deterioration of the political situation.

Conservative and Liberal Blacks

In fact, the two traditions of conservatism and liberalism, the same that have always existed among the whites, existed in the black community. The fight between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois came to establish the dominant pattern of political thinking among blacks and whites in the south during the period of Jim Crow dominance following the defeat of Reconstruction. Two groups of followers assembled behind these two men and their successors. Ray Standard Baker, writing in 1908, observed: "It has come, indeed, to the point where most Negroes of any intelligence at all have taken their place on one side or the other." (Martial 1944:743)

During this period, a pattern of Negro thinking and Negro controversy became established. I have found -- particularly in the South, where conditions have changed less than in the North -- that this discussion still goes on among intellectual and professional Negroes in much the same terms as at the beginning of the century. (Martial 1944:743)

These two political outlooks continued as dual systems, but it is important to note that neither fundamentally threatened the Southern white system of domination. The NAACP was always a relatively weak organization in the south.

Washington may have had to share power with Du Bois but that still leaves black institutions that are all gradualist in nature. And they all censor non-gradualist approaches. That is until the stars and planets align, as they came together in 1954 with Brown vs. the Board of Education. When such a convergence of demographic and political forces come together, then it is safe to be radical as blacks see a chance to change the entire system. But in periods when the forces are stable, they retreat back to their gradualist approaches and censor virtually any effective voices calling for radical change.

You can bet that Martial never met Vernon Johns. Johns did not approve of either side of this debate and ways of thinking. And in this sense he was a maverick and a rebel. He thought beyond this debate and because he did he inspired those who eventually carried out the destruction of the Southern apartheid system, Martin Luther King Jr. just being the foremost of these.

And you can bet that those on both sides of the debate did not like Vernon Johns. And Johns did not really like either group. Johns distained the conservatives for their accommodation to the system of segregation. But Johns also disliked the NAACP for pretty much the same reason. He felt they were not really fighting hard enough against the system of segregation. Their legal approach was too slow and too ineffective for Johns. He also did not like the NAACP because it was elitist, representing the interests and approaches of the professional class of blacks.

It is absolutely incorrect to use such terms as militant, as Martial does, in describing the NAACP. He mentions that Washington had increasingly to concede a place to "proponents of a more militant course of action." (Martial 1944:743)

So in the Jim Crow era you have the entire political spectrum basically working within and accommodating to the racist system. The options were no different in the black community than the white community. The NAACP is gradualist and accepts the basic goodness of the system. They have faith that it will change of itself given time.

It was not until much later that the NAACP started to challenge the system. Before this they worked within the racist system for gradual improvement. For instance, they accepted the overall system of "separate but equal" facilities in the South. Beginning in the 1930s, black Southerners, through the aegis of the NAACP, began to insist that the facilities provided for them be equal in fact to those provided whites, or that blacks be admitted to white institutions. (Taylor 1976:59) It was not until the 1950s, virtually on the eve of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision, that the NAACP began to disagree with the system.

In one sense it serves very little purpose to criticize existing black organizations. The NAACP and the NUL do the kind of job that they are good at and they do it well and they should be accepted for what they are. Rather, if one wants change one has to go outside these organizations and build a new more radical organization, while still maintaining relations with the other two organizations. In essence this is what Martin Luther King Jr did. While establishing his own organization, he still maintained good relations with the others.

Founding of the NAACP

The immediate cause of the founding of the NAACP is the riot that devastated Springfield, Illinois, the town where the Great Emancipator lay entombed, on the night of August 14, 1908. It signaled that the race problem was no longer regional but national. (Lewis 1994:387)

Du Bois looked to the exceptional men -- the "Talented Tenth" -- to pull the race up, and he looked to colleges like Atlanta to produce them. (Broderick and Meier 1965:40-41)

In June 1905 the rebellious group met at Niagara Falls and drew up a platform for aggressive action. This became known as the Niagara Movement. The movement's name came from the location of the first meeting -- the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Although they were ignored and rather helpless, radicals thus at least kept alive the tradition of virile protest. The Movement never gained a membership of more than 400, and it dissolved at the end of five years.

Whites called a conference for Lincoln's birthday for 1909. The permanent organization became known as the NAACP. Some members of the Niagara Movement, most prominently Du Bois, threw in their lot with the biracial NAACP when it began to function in 1910. But some, like Trotter, held aloof because they feared white domination.

Du Bois had grown restive at Atlanta University: the administration had become weary and timid, support for his research had dwindled, and in any case the world outside had not responded to his work. After 1905 the agitation connected with the Niagara Movement took more and more of his energy and money. In 1910, therefore, he welcomed the chance to join the staff of the NAACP as director of research and editor of the NAACP's magazine, The Crisis.

He was suspicious of white men. He wanted blacks to control their own organizations, with their own ideals leading to their own identity. In his deep concern for the impoverished Negro masses, and in his sympathetic interest in socialism, he went beyond the NAACP's official program of seeking protection for the Negro's constitutional rights. This crack in the Association's unity, patched and plastered over for twenty-four years, eventually led to Du Bois's resignation.

In 1915 NAACP won a Supreme Court suit that invalidated the "grandfather clause" which made it illegal for most Southern blacks to vote.

The Middle Clas Bias of the NAACP

The NAACP is obviously a valuable organization. It has been a group that keeps the issue of racism in front of the public. The problem with the organization, however, is that they have such a strong middle-class bias in orientation, goals, and tactics.

Since it is the bias of the NAACP to have a middle-class orientation, they probably will never be in the vanguard. For instance, they would never be on the side of a Vernon Johns as prophet. They would perceive him as too radical. Thurgood Marshall, who was so helpful in the legal battle against school desegregation in the 1940s and early 1950s, could not bring himself even to support the work on Martin Luther King, Jr. with the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Nor is the NAACP much help in the current attempts to work toward a third civil rights movement. They, like the white liberals, will not assist, but will rather offer opposition to, any attempts to start a civil rights movement. They want to work via the channels of the existing political and legal system, refusing to see that the system is fundamentally flawed in that it is still primarily a racist society.

In this the NAACP represents the interests of their constituency; mainly, people who have something big-time to lose if they participate in an attempt to change fundamentally the nature of the system. Their tactics are designed to fit in with the existing system. But does anyone seriously think that without Martin Luther King, Jr. and his tactics of civil disobedience that there would have been a destruction of the apartheid system in the nation?

"The NAACP's tactic of educational persuasion was based on the premise that white Americans would treat blacks as equals once they overcame their own ignorance. This message was well-suited to intellectual backing of the foundery." (Morris 1984:14) Legal action has always been the main tactic of the NAACP, but it will always remain an inefficient weapon and tactic. But it will prevent middle class blacks from having to suffer economic and political recriminations.

 

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