CHAPTER 19. POPULISM AND THE PUNISHMENT OF BLACKS

Martin R. Delany wins out over Frederick Douglass

Martin Robison Delany was born 1812 (died 1885), Charleston, Virginia, now West Virginia. This doctor of medicine who settled in Pittsburgh became the historical prototype of the "Afro-American Nationalist" (Ullman 1971:13). Delany was the spokesman for the black nationalist phase of Douglass' day. For a time he was Douglass' co-editor of the abolitionist newspaper The North Star in 1847. The two men fell out over Delany's acceptance of emigration for blacks as worthy of consideration. By 1854 Douglass came to be seen as the black spokesman primarily to the whites. The black abolitionists were now working with Delany (Ullman 1971:150-151).

To show that there is nothing new under the sun in race relations, including afrocentricity, note the following items about Delany. Delany caused quite a controversy when he demanded that the Republican party share patronage of public office with the blacks on a "pro-rata" basis. (Ullman 1971:414) And in 1879 Delany published Principia of Ethnology: The Origin of Races with an Archeological Compendium of Ethiopian and Egyptian Civilization (Ullman 1971:510-511). This pseudo-scientific tract was his last gesture of defiance to the white world. It was a pseudo-scientific tract on behalf of the Negro in general and Africa in particular. Like the Afrocentrists of today, he connected American and African blacks to the unquestioned wonders of the Ethiopian and Egyptian civilizations. "He believed that the lost civilizations of Africa were man's highest achievements, not even yet duplicated by any modern society (Ullman 1971:512)."

The First American Populism

Liberal supporters of populism saw in this movement a possible political alliance between the poor blacks of the South and the poor whites. This was indeed an optimistic approach because traditionally blacks had aligned themselves with upper class whites for protection against lower class whites (Woodward:51). For blacks, populism was a movement in which the blacks would align with the poor and working class whites to get a bigger slice of the pie. They, however, like all American liberals, seriously underestimated the racism of the lower and working class whites.

Shapiro (1969:27& 29) notes that the white Populists' interest in the Negro vote was mainly a result of political expediency. And in that vein the Populists defended the Negro's right to the franchise and also his right to hold office, to serve on juries, to receive a fair hearing in the courts and to receive protection against lynchers. The Populists proclaimed that economic interest, not race, was the central issue in the South. In 1892 the populist leader Tom Watson asked what was wrong with telling Negro farmers that they stood in the same boat as the white farmers. Watson explained to the poor blacks and whites that "You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you." But the Populists only granted concessions to Negroes to get their votes and never intended to grant anything like near equality to blacks. Shapiro (1969:34-35) demolishes the pretension that Tom Watson was a truly non-racist white pioneer.

Populism frightened the more powerful conservative elements in the South (Shapiro 1969:30). "Alarmed by the success that the Populists were enjoying with their appeal to the Negro voter, the conservatives themselves raised the cry of 'Negro domination' and white supremacy, and enlisted the Negrophobe elements (Woodward 77-79)."

Populism did not work because of the inherent opposition between lower class whites and blacks. All whites under racism were deemed superior to blacks. Not only did they feel this emotionally, but this idea was enforced by the entirety of Southern society.

Populism was primarily a defensive reaction of farmers and other rural folk to increasing industrialism. Its greatest political spokesman was William Jennings Bryan, who ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic presidential candidate in the elections of 1896, 1900, and 1908. An effective solution was not going to come from the field of agriculture, however, which would eventually decline to less than 5 percent of the American workforce.

Populist forces were important in many state governments, and many populists became state governors. In 1900 Robert La Follette became governor of Wisconsin by combining agricultural and labor interests to defeat the state machine. This led to a virtual chain reaction in the Middle West. Similar elections occurred in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Kansas. The movement spread to the South and the West. Most of the western states had at least some form of populist government. Populism was not as successful in the East where a strong union movement was hostile to agricultural and middle-class reformers.

George Mowry (1958:80) has written that this era was the most active and creative period of state governments since the end of the Civil War. Many reforms involved increases in democracy. The "initiative" gave people the opportunity to pass legislation on their own; the "referendum" made it possible to do away with bad laws; the "recall" let voters fire those public servants that violated the public trust. And, finally, "direct primaries" took nominations out of smoke-filled rooms, letting the voters decide on the candidates. People felt these measures were necessary because the extensive corrupting influences on government exercised by large corporations. By the end of 1912, thirteen states had statewide primary laws; by 1909, twenty-nine states selected their U.S. senators by popular ballot; by 1912, twelve states west of the Mississippi River had adopted both the initiative and the referendum. With these last two measures, the electorate could pass legislation without reference to a legislature and could veto a legislative measure by a majority vote of the people.

Populism as a Wrong Approach

Liberal supporters of populism saw in this movement a possible political alliance between the poor blacks of the South and the poor whites. This was indeed an optimistic approach because traditionally blacks had aligned themselves with the upper class whites for protection against the lower class whites. When Northern liberals and radicals began to lose interest in the freedmen's cause and federal protection was withdrawn, blacks had to turn to the conservatives among upper-class Southerners for allies against the poor whites. "It was not sentimentality for 'Ole Marster' that inspired the freedmen, but the hot breath of cracker fanaticism they felt on the back of their necks." (Woodward:51)

On occasion the upper class even cooperated with the blacks to defend the system against disaffected lower class whites. The conservative policies often found disfavor among the less fortunate whites, especially among the depressed agricultural white population. Calling themselves Independents, Greenbackers, or Readjusters, these disaffected elements organized in third parties and challenged the control of the conservative Democrats in almost every Southern state. They presented a serious threat to conservative control in some states, and in Virginia, where they combined with a wing of the Republican party there, they overthrew the Redeemer government and took over the state. In this situation conservatives were obviously in need of friends, and as the third party grew in other states and threatened to repeat the Virginia tactics, the conservatives naturally sought an understanding with the blacks. (Woodward 56-57)

In Mississippi this principal of alliance was known as the "fusion principle." This was a working agreement by which the conservatives helped the Negro wing of the Republican party against the white wing in return for Negro assistance to the conservatives in their struggles against dissident whites. (Woodward 57)

Shapiro (1969:27& 29) notes that the white Populists' interest in the Negro vote was mainly a result of political expediency. And in that vein the Populists defended the Negro's right to the franchise and also his right to hold office, to serve on juries, to receive a fair hearing in the courts and to receive protection against lynchers. The Populists proclaimed that economic interest, not race, was the central issue in the South. In 1892 the populist leader Tom Watson asked what was wrong with telling Negro farmers that they stood in the same boat as the white farmers. Watson explained to the poor blacks and whites that "You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you."

Populists may have seemed non-racist to naive liberal scholars who wanted to believe that racism is only a result of manipulation by the dominant economic class, but the Populists only granted concessions to Negroes to get their votes and never intended to grant anything like near equality to blacks. Shapiro (1969:34-35) demolishes the pretension that Tom Watson was a truly non-racist white pioneer.

Populism did bring some progress but it also broke the agreement between the upper class whites and the blacks. Populism called for an alliance between the poor whites and the blacks against the upper class whites. This would prove to be the further undoing of blacks for they backed the wrong horse in the political race.

Populism alarmed the more powerful conservative elements in the South. (Shapiro 1969:30) The storm of discontent aroused by the agrarian depression of the 80s and 90s caught the conservatives off guard and threw them on the defensive. A great restiveness seized upon the populace, a more profound upheaval of economic discontent than had ever moved the Southern people before, more profound in its political manifestations than that which shook them in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Alarmed by the success that the Populists were enjoying with their appeal to the Negro voter, the conservatives themselves raised the cry of 'Negro domination' and white supremacy, and enlisted the Negrophobe elements. (Woodward 77-79)

The counterattack prevailed over the Populists. The Populists were unable to meet the attack because they could not fully free themselves of racism, regionalism and suspicion of the Negro. The Populists drew back from repudiating the idea that white men were to exert a dominating influence on the affairs of the South. (Shapiro 1969:32)

Populism would never have lasted anyway, but this did not stop the conservatives from being very frightened. This helped increase the system of separation between whites and blacks. Populism did not work because of the inherent opposition between lower class whites and blacks. All whites under racism were deemed superior to whites. Not only did they feel this emotionally, but this idea was enforced by the entirety of Southern society.

Jim Crow

The term "jim crow" is really a racist term because it is so neutral (too wimpy) that it should be immediately dismissed by anyone who wants to overcome racism. The term apartheid is much better even though the two systems are not exactly the same. Although, many blacks would argue that they had to have the virtual equivalent of passes given that it was very, very dangerous for blacks to travel in the south.

Also, Jim Crow segregation was not established until the 1890s. Blacks sat in the state legislatures in South Carolina until 1900, and Georgia until 1908, and the South sent black congressmen to the U.S. House of Representatives until 1900. Segregation was uneven, different in different places, and depended on local conditions. It was well establishing in housing, hotels, and schools after the war, and blacks segregated the churches themselves by pulling out of the white churches in 1865. But in public transportation, theaters, shops, and eating establishments, integration was the norm. The monument to establish segregation in all phases of social life began in Tennessee and Mississippi in the 1880, and accelerated in the 1890s throughout the South. C. Van Woodward deals with this in The Strange Career of Jim Crow.

The Jim Crow System: Separate but Equal Segregation

The Jim Crow system of segregation in the South was the punishment doled out to the blacks for seeking to ally themselves with lower class and working class whites against the upper class whites. The South passed law after law restricting the free movement and activities of blacks, thereby creating a terrible system of apartheid. In 1896 the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision sanctioned the "separate but equal" doctrine that Booker T. Washington had already endorsed in his "separate as the fingers" reference. The Plessy decision involved only transportation, but the courts soon extended the formula to schools and public accommodations.

The great spokesman for acceptance of the Jim Crow system was Booker T. Washington, president of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, at Tuskegee, Alabama. He dominated the racial sphere from 1895 to his death in 1915. Even though Washington secretly supported several actions to promote integration, the vast majority of Washington's work was always done within the system of "separate but equal." He simply tried to expand the notion of equal, pleading and appealing to the whites for more equal treatment, trading better treatment for black cooperation with the whites.

Few sociologists know this, but Robert E. Park, the father of racial and ethnic sociology, and his fellow sociologists cooperated with Booker T. Washington. Park was even Washington's private secretary for a time. (See Cooney and Santana Cooney 1997b.)

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in Virginia in 1856. He later worked in the salt mines of West Virginia. In the fall of 1878 at the age of twenty-two, he attended Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C. Washington never liked big cities and he did not seem to enjoy his time at the seminary where the students were much too urban and sophisticated to suit his more simple rural tastes. As a painter, he worked his way through Hampton Institute in Virginia, where General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, the white principal, first set forth a program of agricultural and industrial training that would make the education of Negroes palatable to the dominant elements in the New South. It was Armstrong who taught Washington the doctrine of economic advancement and conciliation of whites. Armstrong believed the chief problem of the Negro was "not mere ignorance, but deficiency of character. . ." (quoted in Anderson 1988:58) In the vein of the popular philosopher Mark Hopkins and the philosophy at Williams College, which Armstrong attended, character-building was ascendant over scholarship.

Washington became a teacher at Hampton and stayed there until 1881, when he was chosen to head a new school that came to be known as the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. The school became a pioneer example of an independent industrial school.

In 1895 Washington was catapulted into national prominence as a black spokesman by the effects of a single speech, delivered in Atlanta before the Cotton States and International Exposition. Washington told whites that their economic futures could only be assured by a lessening of their hostility to blacks. And he told blacks that the most important goal was economic respectability. He asserted the two groups moving toward each other in their outlooks would make it more likely for blacks to obtain equal protection under the law (Hawkins 1974:viii).

This made him in the eyes of white America the "official" leader of the black race. Washington was supported by governmental, industrial, and educational leaders throughout the nation. President Daniel Coit Gilman of John Hopkins University asked Washington to be one of the judges of the exposition's educational exhibits. A flood of invitations to speak followed Washington's Atlanta Address. The white people chose Washington as the black leader they believed in, and eagerly wanted to see and touch him. He was the predictable black speaker before such organizations as the Hamilton Club, the Union League Club, the Chautauqua Assembly, the YMCA, and the black and white churches (Harlan 1972:232).

Washington became the darling of the philanthropic leaders. Men such as Andrew Carnegie and Henry H. Rogers of Standard Oil supported the Tuskegee Institute. Carnegie bestowed upon Washington so much money that he was guaranteed economic support for life. (Thornbrough 1969:8) He received monies and support from the Rockefeller-endowed General Education Board, the Rosenwald Fund, the Anna T. Jeanes Fund, and the Phelps-Stokes Fund. Washington was on friendly terms with William H. Baldwin, Jr, vice-president of the Southern Railway, merchants John W. Wanamaker and Robert C. Ogden, Collis P. Huntington, the railroad magnate, and Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck and Company. He was well acquainted with editors and publishers, such as Walter Hines Page and Lyman Abbott, editors and publishers. Even writers got into the supporting act. William Dean Howells thought Washington an "exemplary citizen" who had the only realistic method of dealing with the vexing race problem (Thornbrough 1969:18).

Democratic President Grover Cleveland wrote a letter to Washington thanking him for what he had done. He wrote that Washington had provided the basis for "new hope" for blacks. Cleveland became a lifelong friend of Washington's. (Harlan 224) The progressive president Theodore Roosevelt said that Washington was "a genius such as does not arise in a generation." (Thornbrough 1969:17) As chief patronage referee in the South for federal appointments under Roosevelt and Taft, virtually every decision to appoint a black was not done until Washington was conferred with and his approval secured. Indeed, the period from 1895 to 1915 has been called the Age of Booker T. Washington (Hawkins 1974:ix).

We have to make it clear that Washington was a man supported by the liberals, not the conservatives. The vast majority of white southerners felt very uneasy about Washington. This was demonstrated by the furor caused when President Roosevelt entertained Washington at a family dinner at the White House (Thornbrough 1969:7). This is also seen in the considerable support he received from blacks. Most blacks also endorsed Washington. These included T. Thomas Fortune, Francis J. Grimke, J. W. E. Bowen and other blacks prominent in the drive for civil rights and higher education. Even Du Bois kept on friendly terms with Washington, although this would eventually change. In fact, he remained an ally of Washington until 1903. T. Thomas Fortune, a predecessor of the people who established the NAACP and a man regarded as the best black journalist in the nation, was one of Washington's closest confidants. (Thornbrough 1969:19) Washington was a member of the boards of trustees of Howard and Fisk Universities (Meier 1966: 114). Compared to the reaction of white liberals, the black reaction was less positive and many thought he was too conciliatory, but Washington once wrote that even the skeptics "seemed to have been won over to my way of believing and acting" (Harlan 225). Even though there was no unanimity in reaction to the speech, Harlan says a surprising number of prominent blacks hastened to congratulate Washington. One of his most outspoken opponents was the black radical separatist Bishop Henry M. Turner who supported black emigration to Liberia.

In 1896 the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision gave judicial sanction to the "separate but equal" doctrine that Washington had already endorsed in his "separate as the fingers" reference in his speeches. The Plessy decision involved only transportation, but the courts soon extended the formula to schools and public accommodations. (Lewis:230)

Washington built a coalition of blacks, northern liberals, southern moderates and wealthy philanthropists. Most neo-abolitionists endorsed Washington's work, even though they were somewhat skeptical of his emphasis on industrial training and thought he was too obsequious of southern whites (McPherson 1994:361 & 359). As August Meier (1966:97&99) has pointed out in his book Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915: Racial Ideologies in the Age of Booker T. Washington, there was nothing original in the thought of Booker T. Washington. Rather he simply put all the ingredients together in a nice sounding way that appealed to all the various regions, social classes, and racial groupings in America at the turn of the century. And because he did provide an approach that was so nebulous that it could be interpreted favorably by any group, it was acceptable to all the various groupings in the United States. Many southern and northern whites liked his ideas because it assumed an inferior position for blacks. It appealed to white liberals because they thought it would advance the condition of the blacks in the South. In fact, Washington's approach fit the spirit of the age.

But he was not just the "official" leader in the eyes of the whites, but also in the eyes of most blacks. "For the next twenty years, until his death in 1915, no other Negro commanded a comparable influence among men of both races (Broderick and Meier 1965:8)." As the seal of their approbation, white Alabamians enshrined Washington as the only black face in their state's hall of fame (Hamilton 1977:83).

Washington did work for reforms for the blacks and improvements for the race. But he always did this within the system of "separate but equal." He simply tried to expand the notion of equal, pleading and appealing to the whites for more equal treatment, trading better treatment for black cooperation with the whites. Washington actually lived a very duplicitous life for while appeasing the whites, he would do as much as he could get away with for his fellow blacks (Harlan 1972:171).

Today we realize that the philosophy and approach of Booker T. Washington was an accommodation to the evils of segregation. Washington did the best he could for his race within the Southern apartheid system. While we may excuse Washington a bit for this, what are the excuses of the liberal whites who supported Washington? Like the men who advised the presidents to get involved in the Vietnam War, Washington's supporters were among the best and the brightest. And yet they were so wrong.

List of Friends and Supporters of and/or Go-Alongs with Booker T. Washington

Reading the letters to and from Booker T. Washington papers in the fifteen volume series is a fascinating exercise, because of the appearance of so many leaders of the liberal/progressive community, as well as others. These volumes certainly demonstrate how influential Washington was and how widespread was his support. A list of just a few of the friends and supporters of, or go-alongs for, Booker T. Washington are listed in the appendix.

 

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