The Shadow of Booker T. Washington

The Booker T. Washington Papers, Volume 1: The Autobiographical Writings; Volume 2: 1860-1889

edited by Louis R. Harlan
University of Illinois, 557 pp., $15.00 each

Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington; drawing by David Levine

No American black leader I know of carries on the tradition of Booker T. Washington. This does not mean, of course, that echoes of his ideas are not to be heard here and there. Racial separation, for example, remains a major aim of certain groups within the black movement, although the argument made for it in recent times has been aggressive and demanding where Washington’s was essentially submissive. But no black leader would dare now to endorse Washington’s policies of acquiescence in segregation and disfranchisement; emphasis on industrial training in preference to higher education and equal opportunity; rejection of racial and social protest in favor of self-help, business enterprise, and political accommodation. The changes since 1915, when Washington died, or since the first three or four years of the century, when he was at the height of his influence, have made his program anathema for blacks.

But this is far from true for a large constituency of whites. One senses in this country today an attitude toward continued black progress that recalls, however faintly, the late nineteenth century in America when—after Reconstruction had been betrayed and the federal government had withdrawn its protection of black rights in the South—black progress was dramatically reversed, and when Booker T. Washington, one of the few black men who prospered under these conditions, was rising to a position of leadership. As W.E.B. DuBois observed in 1903:

Easily the most striking thing in the history of the American Negro since 1876 is the ascendancy of Mr. Booker T. Washington. It began at a time when war memories and ideals were rapidly passing; a day of astonishing commercial development was dawning…. Mr. Washington came with a single definite programme, at a psychological moment when the nation was a little ashamed of having bestowed so much sentiment on Negroes, and was concentrating its energies on Dollars. [Italics added.]

What one senses today springs from the policy of silence or indifference, or worse, which the Nixon Administration appears to have adopted toward some of the most important racial and social reforms enacted between 1960 and 1968—reforms which had the effect or at least held out the promise of restoring many of the rights and freedoms revoked between the 1870s and the 1890s. Perhaps this new policy was most charitably named by the former cabinet member who counseled Mr. Nixon that “the time has come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of benign neglect.” Mr. Moynihan’s sentiments (like those of his colleagues who speak today as if their former broad support of the politics of racial equality is a liberal indiscretion they would like as soon as possible to forget) may well be similar to those DuBois remarked upon earlier when he said that “the nation was a little ashamed.” More recently, the policy of neglect appears to have been extended to poverty—which…

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