The Fall of The Black Empires

To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown: An Autobiography

by Berry Gordy
Warner Books, 432 pp., (out of print)

Berry, Me, and Motown

by Raynoma Gordy Singleton
Contemporary Books, 320 pp., (out of print)

By the time the “equal opportunity” generation of black Americans started going to college in the Sixties, Booker T. Washington’s reputation had washed up on the wrong side of history, beached and moldering like the carcass of a whale. For these newest “new Negroes” he was as old-fashioned as the country blues. He seemed compromised and unheroic at a time when compromise was disreputable. It isn’t surprising that his influence on twentieth-century black America is commonly given short shrift. Ironically, two men of high influence with the generation that scorned Washington, Elijah Muhammad and Berry Gordy Jr., were in many respects his followers in the institutions they built, and that is the reason they are among the most important black Americans of the last half-century.

When Berry Gordy’s father came of age in Georgia, and while Elijah Poole was growing up there, Booker T. Washington was the “Wizard of Tuskegee,” an authentic international celebrity, famous for the industrial training school he had set up in Alabama. Among other things, he was the most powerful black political boss America has ever known, serving as a dispenser of government jobs to blacks under several Republican administrations, and a broker of white philanthropy to Negro causes and institutions for more than thirty years. He accomplished this by exchanging his acquiescence in white authority over black American life for relative freedom of action for himself within its appointed boundaries. He used this dispensation as a charter to build and administer, often with his hand disguised and by purposeful indirection, an informal national organization disciplined enough to be called “the Tuskegee machine.”

Elijah Muhammad came to different conclusions about the white man’s intentions and the mutability of his basic nature, but in most respects the Wizard’s indirect methods were the Messenger’s model. Elijah felt morally superior to his oppressors and expressed it openly and contemptuously, but, like Washington, he never challenged their authority. On the several occasions in the early Sixties when police forcibly entered, even shot up, Muslim places of worship, the Nation’s response was uniformly restrained.

For all their jail- and street-hardened patina, the paramilitary huffing and puffing that always succeeded in making the Muslims seem a little dangerous, the tacit understanding they mostly had with local law enforcement was mutually reinforcing. Muslims were generally left alone because they were understood to be supportive of authority, perceived as a kind of auxiliary constabulary that helped to keep order in unruly neighborhoods. Though Elijah’s accommodation to white authority was superficially less congenial than Washington’s, he rendered unto Caesar every bit as much. He used the cover he was thereby afforded to tend his “nation of shopkeepers” with as much unfettered authority as Washington had to run his “machine.”

Forty years before Berry Gordy Jr. started to amass his fortune as a budding impresario of pop music, his father stole away from Georgia with the $2,600 he got from selling tree stumps. It seemed like …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.