Weakest Link/Strongest Chain/Free Only When All Are Free/Act Now/Somehow/Before You Are/One of Those For Whom They Came.
In reading “The Atlanta Compromise” of Booker T. Washington (1895) and the “Critique” of that work by Dubois (1903), the essential principles behind each position was immediately clear, and the link to common aisle-by-aisle ideological positioning of today was both enlightening and angering. The enlightenment? Power. The anger? Oh, the anger.
The gist of the two arguments can be boiled down to: the multiplier effect of faith and hard work minus government action (the basis of Washington’s ideology, and of today’s right-wing “Conservative Republican”) versus the multiplier effect of knowledge and the power of knowledge, with the ability to put populist pressure on elected officials (as presented by Dubois, and millions of emulators such as I). The arguments here represent an eternal struggle between two groups who believe, arrogantly, their belief to be the only correct belief. This paper will describe those essential arguments made by each man, provide some historical context and analysis, and show a few connections to our modern-day culture. There are some fundamental differences in the worldview of each man, and we can see those differences on display today in the ideology of each political party, most especially in the party of Power.
In short, this seemed at first a relatively easy paper to do, mainly because of my predilection for politics, but the subject matter proved emotionally overwhelming at times, making this an issue hard to focus on and harder to find a reasonable mind to discuss the material with. Impossible, in fact.
During a time where white supremacy was an unquestioned truth and a way of life for America (yes, our America) and the lynching of poor and rich black men alike was commonplace, and at a moment when blacks were barred from all but the most menial tasks in the North, Booker T. Washington gave his speech to a live audience (the audio is available online). In it, he attempted to convince American Free Blacks (particularly Southern) to accept their inferiority in politics, legal civic status, and education. Government, in his view, would only seek to further enslave poor people, but this time it would surely be the fault of those who were dependent on the government for their own success. He was also hopeful that this “compromise” would ease simmering racial violence.
Dubois was thirty-three when he wrote his scathing critique eight years later, having studied at Harvard (and Fisk, and University of Berlin, and Harvard again). He hoped to prove to all who believed the line Washington was selling their folly. To be fair, it isn’t as if there is zero substance to the argument he so skillfully skewers. There is indeed dignity in hard work and strength, for some, in faith. He spent his life pointing out how hypocritical this ideology is, and how much of reality it leaves out, both in written works and activist speaking. He argued that this attitude of racial supremacy can be combated with “insistence on civil rights,” political agitation and activity, and equal opportunities for higher education. All of these are dependent on government interaction with the citizen, and vice versa. He believed submission ought to be fought constantly until the idea itself had perished.
Washington was thirty-nine when he proposed, at the behest of his big business backers, this agenda of submission for the free Black man, in hopes of a “mutual” progress. Washington was chosen by his wealthy benefactors as the leader of the Tuskegee Institute, and these backers of that project were no doubt eager to have a class of “freed” men who needed jobs and a Bible, lest they “prove a veritable death” to the prosperity of the nation. The motive for Washington here becomes evident; prevent the political power of Backs from growing, and government from further regulating business activity, and see his own bottom line improve (not to mention that of the Land Barons, the Railroad Barons, the former slave and plantation owners, etc., he counted among his friends). And sure, the people will benefit. Progressives loved his message. Jobs and Bibles, remember? There was no doubt, as Dubois put it, a “noble” intent, but it is not evident in the first glance.
Both men assumed that some semblance of peace between the races was possible and necessary to the “prosperity” of America, and that theirs was the way to make those improvements. For a while, they even agreed on the “hard work and faith” part of “knowledge and power and the power of knowledge” but grew separate as “patience” became outright submission to “knowing their place.” Both men, too, believed that only by staying in America could the goals of all men eventually be reached. Both were right in that redress is only possible in America, and in believing that a minimal education is at the least necessary to compete in any labor market. But Washington believed the free market would provide the necessary redress; Dubois hoped the Constitution someday would enshrine the redress as a Civil Right.
Washington’s’ use of the word “privilege” for example, is ridiculed by the Dubois phrase “… they are absolutely certain that the way for a people to gain their reasonable rights is not by voluntarily throwing them away.” Government cannot give rights, this is true. But only government can recognize them, and protect your private property rights in an equitable court. Only government can prevent your right to vote on representation in our democratic republic from being stripped without due process, and only government can redistribute tax dollars through appropriate and equal representation.
Not that there is no dignity in hard work, not that government should provide solely for the individual—clearly, we are a nation of self-ruled individuals with equal sovereign rights. But patience was not how this was achieved. Though W.e.b. makes the point that there “must be patience and courtesy” from those doing the asking, he could not be clearer than when he outlines the truest point: “…relentless color prejudice is more often cause than a result of the Negros’s degradation.” And Washington would have business interests be the “they” being asked, not government. Is any employer going to profitably and equally protect you and employ you? No. The absence of government as freedom? Now, this was beginning to sound incredibly familiar, and intensely frightening. Work and faith so tied together, where do we see that today?
A close inspection of rhetoric this election season quickly reveals a White Christian Nationalist Nativist leaning in the Republican Party. The message heard from Booker T. Washington in 1895 is the same message heard through today’s right wing, now no longer fringe, but indeed, proud to be hateful of our President…much like in the days when to be for Civil Rights was to be against God’s plan. These days are those days. Today we do not have much undeveloped land, but what land we have left is proposed as completely under our “dominion” by the current Republican Candidates leading the polls. We don’t have public lynching, true, but conservative Christian white Republicans routinely and aggressively question the Presidents’ faith, place of birth, and allegiance, if not his identity as the Anti-Christ. To be a voting (Forbid, Liberal) Democrat is quite literally understood to be “of Satan.” But there is no element of white supremacy at work here? This is a preposterous and yet oft-heard assertion.
For what it’s worth, the Tea Party comes from predominantly Southern states, and is most highly concentrated and belligerently seditious in the states that led the secession. Do we see lynching today? Not exactly, but what is being a wage slave with debt you and your children can’t ever pay anyway? All things change, and Power adapts to the time. We once saw crucifixions, and that seems to have backfired on Power. The lynching at will of American citizens was a logical leap Power made, overreaching, given the way free men were responding at the turn of the last century. Finally, we see today Power trying to re-segregate schools and pushing against the science of science --just as an example-- all for the betterment of their business interests, and all because they believe that this is how God would want it to be. How sad. What we see today is a modern take on McCarthyism, but online, and preserved for posterity. Those who disagree are un-American and Anti-Christian? Even the man who attempted to assassinate President Obama on November 11th (Idaho’s own Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez) believed him to be the Anti-Christ. This has gone too far. There will be no hiding this shame, America.
If you are watching, and paying attention, there is even a willingness to default on the nation’s debt just to prove the inferiority of a black president! This is the proof reality can offer to show that the racism bred from the Old Southern way of Slavery as Economic Engine and Christian Tradition is still strongly at work through what can be called a “traditional White Christian Nationalist” or Revisionist Confederate wing of the Republican Party. These are, after all, the exact sort of people Washington hoped would be appeased by his speech.
Are, or were, all Southerners then, or all conservative (Republicans) now racist? No. In fact, the North was not a hospitable place for Blacks looking to advance as free people in the cities. As mentioned, these free American citizens were barred from all but the most unskilled tasks; one must accept that the law here once allowed for the horribly oppressive choice between a lifetime facing a sharecropper’s contract and a landowners’ impossible demands, or life in a factories, at the employers whim and at the wage they choose most profitable to them and your soul. Accepting this means accepting why, and that means accepting the White Christian role in preventing fairness and equality in a nation founded on the very idea. This is hard for many people to face once they are shown the “facts.”
Some conservatives will argue, and they have some fair point here, that they are tired of paying for schools that fail (as for example). “Education isn’t for everyone! Not everyone can work for the Government! Dependence on the government is another form of slavery!” To that malarkey should be our universal reply: “We don’t send that message here. We want our children to believe that opportunity is an American Ideal, that equity in law is America’s exceptional idea. In America, we believe in the right of redress. We need our children to be given the very best opportunities, even at the cost of sacrificing other highly held ideals; else their future incompetence will doom America to eventual collapse. That we cannot stand for.”
These, of course, these are the same people who refuse to raise taxes (on anyone! Ever!) that would appropriately (and consistently) fund those schools or to vote for representatives who will. This ideology exemplified by Washington’s “Compromise” seems bound by some allegiance to theology over allegiance to our common form of governance, which is a dangerous equation in our history for “common” people if ever there has been one.
Many on the right, in the tradition of B.T. Washington, question the very role of government in, and even the value of, higher education (among everything else). Maybe they are tired of being taxed. That too is fair. Imagine how tired of submitting to slavery our ancestors of class were. Sometimes, the age requires you to be the one carrying the most burden. Suck it up. We must fight bigotry in every season, we must accept some realities; we must submit to no-one, we must remember our own oppressive nature and suppress it. Otherwise, our nation will remain unstable.
Accommodate or die, we hear, Washington was warning. Freedom is the total absence of government intervention, we hear every day, from people who work in the government, or want to usually—oh, and if you are lucky enough to get hired, keep up at work or die, because there is no health care unless you are destitute or employed. This is an all too familiar refrain. There ought to be a sincere appreciation of B.T. Washington’s place in advancing the cause of justice for “colored people,” but Dubois was right to be harshly critical of the basis for the “Atlanta Compromise.” W.e.b. Dubois abandoned America as a result of losing this argument, but spawned a million (and again) scholars, each seeking to respect themselves, improve their country, to prove the right of education to exist, and to show the necessity of government to regulate equity through due process. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights, after all, are quite clear on the subject. (Says, I, I says.)
P.S.-This debate will still be raging in 100 years if we are still here.