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Black Progress Requires Reviving The Legacy Of Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

“The persons who accomplish the most in this world … are those who are constantly seeing and appreciating the bright side as well as the dark side of life.” — Booker T. Washington, “Character Building

Generals often make the mistake of preparing for the next war, as if it will play out like the last. Take the French Maginot Line. A series of concrete fortifications, obstacles, and weapon installations, built in the 1930s to deter German invasion, the Maginot Line was a highly advanced structure for its time. It was 280 miles long and up to 15 miles wide. It even had air conditioning.

Unfortunately, it proved useless. The Maginot Line was designed to fight a “trench war,” as had predominated the Western Front during World War I, but the technology had changed. The way the new war played out was different. The new German Panzer tanks simply went around the Maginot Line. Worse yet, the French government had put so much time and resources into building the Maginot Line, it had failed to prepare its military to adequately fight the Germany army. The French were caught on their heels, and the Nazis conquered the country in a matter of weeks.

I fear that this same fault has too much dominated African American strategic thinking for several decades. The civil rights movement was our last “great war,” and too many are preparing for the next “great black struggle” as if it will be the same as the last one. Here we risk creating our own Maginot Line. But our enemies have also learned from the last war, and they have been making half-time adjustments.

Killing Booker

Throughout my life, Martin Luther King’s picture has been ubiquitous in black people’s homes, neighborhoods, schools, institutions, and so forth. In my world, MLK’s image has been everywhere — MLK, the icon. But there was a time before anyone had ever heard of Martin Luther King Jr.

Back in the day, Booker T. Washington’s image was ubiquitous in black America. And not just black America. After the death of Frederick Douglass, Booker became the most photographed and most famous black man on the planet. Not only was he the greatest icon among African Americans, but the world identified African Americans with the words and image of Booker T. Washington.

Carter G. Woodson, the “father of black history,” recounts a trip to Europe in 1907, when a German stranger insisted that Woodson attend a dinner party at his home, simply because Woodson was the same race as the “great Booker T. Washington,” whom the German came to deeply admire after reading Booker’s “Up From Slavery.”

The Black Revolution of the 1960s changed all of this. It was, of course, a political revolution, the dismantling of Jim Crow, and the elimination of the de jure American color caste system. But it was also a cultural and ideological revolution. The phrases “black pride” and “black power” capture this new way of thinking. Like all such revolutions, it was iconoclastic, attempting to smash the icons of the past. Its attacks on dead white men, such as the Anglo-American Founders, are well known. But it smashed black icons as well.

Longtime black celebrities such as Louis Armstrong and Sidney Poitier were increasingly looked upon as Uncle Toms. The civil rights establishment was viewed suspiciously as bourgeois. Washington took the biggest hit. To MLK and Rosa Parks’ generation of black Southerners, Booker had been the hero — his image, name, donations, philosophy, and program. The Black Revolution put an end to all of that. MLK replaced Booker as the black icon, with some Malcolm X strongholds in the northern cities.

The black academics of the new left eviscerated Booker. Their overall claim, that Booker was personally responsible for the unnecessary extension of Jim Crow, is a vicious slander, and never backed up by any real evidence. Instead, these critics have directly lifted their attacks from two contemporary Massachusetts-born and Harvard-educated quarter-black Americans, William Trotter and W.E.B. Du Bois, who were largely motivated by their envy of Booker’s power and position.

These men believed they should be the national black spokesmen, not Booker. Why they believed this is not clear. Maybe because they were born higher in the color caste system than Booker. Trotter’s father was a wealthy white man who left his son a small fortune. Maybe it was because they went to Harvard and Booker attended Hampton. Maybe because Booker was born a slave, while they were born to free bourgeois black or biracial families. Whatever their reasons, no one has ever persuasively argued that they would have been superior black national spokesmen to Booker.

Resurrecting Booker

Judging strictly by merit, Booker T. Washington should be no less celebrated by Americans than Martin Luther King Jr. Yet in which idols a society worships and which it does not, politics is always involved. The original Martin Luther broke from the Roman Catholic Church because salvation itself had become too political.

Similarly, the leading black voices today have made black salvation in America too political. During his time, Booker understood the game far better than his critics. To say they were playing checkers while Booker was playing chess is a cliché, but nevertheless, an apt one. He believed the center of power in American society lay not in the hands of the politicians, but instead in the hands of the industrial capitalists, whose interests were peculiarly served by the courts and legislatures across the country. This is why he de-emphasized radical politics and emphasized social and economic development, which he viewed would inevitably lead to political progress.

To be fair, as Du Bois evolved over the decades, his views in some ways became closer to Booker’s. His last editorials in the 1934 issues of “The Crisis” express views on Jim Crow closer to Booker’s than the younger Du Bois, de-emphasizing the political fight against segregation and putting greater emphasis on building black institutions and black human capital accumulation. Du Bois eventually came to see the industrial capitalists as the real center of American power, as did Booker. What continued to differ radically was their respective responses to this reality.

For Booker, the answer was a practical black development model and program, rooted in his own personal observations of the specific problems endemic to the freedmen, owing to their recent condition of servitude. To put it briefly: their relative inability to accumulate and pass on capital intergenerationally, both financial and human.

The school of the plantation entirely failed to teach the slave these skills or allow for the creation of institutions favorable to the accumulation of black capital intergenerationally. This is necessary to the advancement of a free people in any society, especially a capitalist one. In the longer term, Booker hoped the efforts of his time could lay the foundations for an elite black industrial capitalist class, thus allowing blacks to be real players in the game.

In contrast, Du Bois became a communist who advocated for the overthrow of the whole worldwide capitalist system. He was a strong admirer of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. The elder Du Bois’ dystopian vision of black salvation was an American Marxist-Leninist Revolution, carried out by the steady hand of a black Stalin or Mao. In contrast, Booker’s vision of black salvation is hopeful, rational, and pragmatic.

Booker Versus ‘The Radical King’

Cornel West’s “The Radical King” is a terrific collection of MLK’s speeches and writings, with a passionate introduction by its editor. Perhaps more than any other black academic celebrity of his generation, West has sought to passionately articulate his version of “The Radical King,” his interpretation of the direction MLK was going when he was so tragically assassinated. Whether or not one agrees with West’s interpretation, he’s been a dedicated and effective evangelist.

For years, black intellectuals and activists have been digging through the history of MLK’s life after the civil rights movement, looking for clues of how to proceed with the struggle from the prophet himself and trying to reconstruct a coherent philosophy from speeches, writings, and anecdotes. The assumption here is that MLK was really onto something, that he was about to make a huge breakthrough before he was untimely silenced by an assassin’s bullet — that it was because he was about to really change things that he was killed.

Readers should re-examine this assumption by folks like West, among others, and entertain the possibility that perhaps MLK was lost, that he was on the wrong path at the end of his life, with respect to his role as de facto national black spokesman. I’m not questioning MLK’s choices as a private citizen, but whether certain political decisions were the most effective options to advance black progress, given his preeminent role.

Was his choice to break with President Lyndon B. Johnson the most effective option for advancing black progress? Was his choice to rail against the “Eastern Establishment” the most effective option for advancing black progress? Especially since these folks were so essential in the implementation of the civil rights and Great Society agenda for which King so passionately advocated. Were these political mistakes?

Would black progress have been better served after the civil rights movement by MLK returning to his roots in the ways of Booker T. Washington, instead of aligning himself with the agenda of white radicals? That is to say, putting less emphasis on radical politics and more on black capital accumulation and institution-building? Would black progress have been better served if MLK had cultivated closer relationships with leading businessmen and affluent people to help finance black development, rather than railing against the capitalist system?

What did it really accomplish anyway?