The organizers of the Exposition invited prominent black leader Booker T. Washington to give a keynote address. The position he took in that speech was a calculated gamble that aimed to improve blacks’ social position by aggressively pursuing progress and abandoning political agitation. The approach he outlined became the dominant black ethos for generations. It was a dizzying failure with consequences we are still working to unwind.I need to break out Washington's book Up from Slavery. Not that it would talk about this, but I never thought about this angle. It's OK to advocate building yourself up by the boot straps, however, it means nothing if no one else respects your enterprise for whatever reason. If no one respects your skill or whatever you build up then they'll never pay you what you're worth nor will they be unwilling to destroy it. Something to consider.
Which brings us to the next player in the story. Washington had a rival in his bid to be the main voice of black America. W.E.B. DuBois was raised in the north and graduated from Harvard. He advocated a much more forceful stand for political rights and dismissed Washington’s emphasis on economic development and capitalism. DuBois founded the NAACP and became a prominent figure, particularly among Northern blacks. DuBois was impressed with Marxism and flirted with radical left-wing theories all his life, even writing a defense of Stalin at his death. His influence would increase as Washington’s version of compromise began to unravel.
Washington’s approach incorporated two disastrous mistakes. First he thought that institutional Southern racism would weaken as the black community began to realize its economic potential. Second, he did not recognize that capitalism cannot function without government protection of basic property rights. In the face of these tragic misunderstandings, blacks labored away for decades building remarkably successful businesses, professions, and civic institutions, only to watch them crushed over and over again by discriminatory laws and violence. There was no hope for economic progress without the most basic civil rights.
A wave of race riots in the teens and ‘20’s were particularly devastating. Only a fraction of the incidents were documented at the time, usually in the form of a brief, euphemistic reference in a local paper to “troubles.” But postcards (that’s right, postcards), stories, and victim accounts painted a clearer picture. Two of the most notorious riots occurred in Rosewood, Florida and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Prosperous black communities were in many cases wiped off the map, destroying generations of hard-won gains. When the Depression came, the brief flowering of the separate black communities was effectively dead.
By the 50’s, as America was bracing finally to confront its racist legacy, the gritty capitalism Washington had promoted was seen by blacks as a discredited failure at best, an “Uncle Tom” sell-out at worst. As Dr. King’s effort’s bore fruit and African-Americans began at last to have genuine economic opportunities thrown open to them, there was little enthusiasm to embrace it. Blacks who had successfully fought to open up economic opportunities focused their continuing efforts on government social programs and poverty relief, reflecting the ascension of DuBois’ approach over the perceived failures of Booker T. Washington.
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