Here is what I don’t understand: why is Martin Luther King, Jr. heralded as the first leader of the civil rights movement while we, as a society, ignore Booker T. Washington?
Don’t get me wrong, King was a great man, and a huge and important figure in the movement. He just wasn’t the first.
Dr. Washington was born as a slave in 1856 Virginia, to a slave mother and a white father he never really knew. Freed by the emancipation proclamation at the age of nine, he moved with his family to West Virginia, where he began to attend school when he could, and learned to read and write. He pursued education hungrily, became a teacher, and eventually became the head of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institution (still around today as Tuskegee University).
He soon became one of the best known representatives of the black community, traveling the country, speaking for and about his race, and using his extensive and powerful contacts to establish new educational opportunities for blacks. His philosophy was that all black people could achieve equality through education and level-headedness, that America’s black community should conduct itself with responsibility, patience, industry, thrift, and usefulness. He held blacks to a higher standard than whites, urging them to be worthy representatives of their race.
His critics included W.E. Du Bois, the founder of the NAACP. “Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission. …” He said, “[His] programme practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races.”
While Washington believed that the road to equality was a long, hard one, needing to be planned carefully and executed over time, mostly through good race relations, Du Bois’ school of thought was more aggressive, he wanted to force instant equality through court victories and legislation.
Washington, it seems, held Du Bois’ theory in the same estimation as Du Bois held his:
“There is another class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs — partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs….There is a certain class of race-problem solvers who do not want the patient to get well, because as long as the disease holds out they have not only an easy means of making a living, but also an easy medium through which to make themselves prominent before the public.”
It should be noted that while advocating peace and understanding between the races, Washington secretly contributed to the coffers of several notable civil rights cases of the day.
One has to wonder what Dr. Washington would have thought about those six boys in jail in Louisiana.
He wouldn’t have liked that they got themselves kicked out of school, I can tell you that.
My take is that the original mishandling was in not expelling the white boys who hanged those nooses from the tree. That is hate, disgusting, raw hate, and, hey, here’s a thought – aren’t schools supposed to be institutions of learning? If you want to threaten and intimidate your fellow students, then guess what? You don’t get the privilege of an education. Too bad, zero tolerance, no second chances, you should have thought about your future before you decided to display your white-trash-cracker bigotry.
But guess what else? No boys would up swinging from that tree. None of them was hurt. I’ll tell you who was hurt – the white boy they beat the crap out of, six on one, who didn’t even hang the nooses. If they’d seen those nooses swaying in the breeze and immediately thereafter attacked the guys who hung them, they would have had a damn fine legal leg to stand on, and I would have supported them. But people don’t seem to realize that this isn’t the same thing, legally or ethically.
I think both Dr. Washington and Dr. King would have been livid (as lived as they ever got, anyway). This is not how you should represent your race. This is not the peaceful, dignified, non-violent protest that they advocated, this is something low and ugly. Dr. Washington said, “One man cannot hold another man down in the ditch without remaining down in the ditch with him.” Dr. King said that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
I’m disappointed that this is being built up in the media as the next wave of civil rights when it seems to me a step backwards in the tradition of the movement.
There’s this amazing musical called Ragtime, based on Doctorow’s eponymous novel, and Dr. Washington has a small role to set the historical context. While I know the following is a fictional quote, as far as I know not even based on anything he said, I feel this line the representation of Washington sings in the last half hour of the show sums up what his opinion of the situation in Jena would have been, and what I think of it.
“For the sum of my life I have lived in hope we might all be Christian brothers.I have worked to persuade every white skinned man that he need not fear our race – what has your selfish recklessness cost us? When I’ve worked so hard to steel the white man’s hate. Look what you’ve done……..And you dare to teach your lessons to these wild, unthinking youths, yet your own son you abandoned to be raised on white man’s truths. Look what you’ve done. Think of your son. Is the lesson you would bestow upon him? Are these the shoulders you would have him stand upon? Let him be the son of a man who had the courage to tell the truth in a court of law. Make your case, and if the verdict is death, go to it proudly, knowing that you have been heard. The truth is all. You do this and you will have the thanks and respect of every decent man of color and of all those children of our race whose way is hard and whose journey is long.”