The Origins of Black Liberalism & Conservatism (part 2)

The Legacies of Du Bois & Washington

In part one of this discussion on ideological origins, we traced the roots of current black thought to the worldviews of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.  That was the biblical worldview of Washington and the secular humanist worldview of Du Bois.   In this continuation of that discussion, we want to look at the outworking of their divergent ideologies.

Du Bois was born free, among the middle class, northern whites, schooled among northern whites, and was influenced and shaped intellectually by whites.  His thinking was a product of the postmodernist philosophical thinking of Europe’s greatest minds in the 18th & 19th centuries.  His studies at Harvard and Berlin taught him to believe in the supremacy of the human mind and reason. He was preoccupied with thought and intellect.   Later his closest friends and allies were the all white, the intellectual elite of the U.S.  These were the so-called progressive thinkers of the time. While Du Bois was a brilliant man and a true intellectual in his own right, sadly the entire fabric of his persona was of a white origin. Most of what Du Bois is known for and given credit for was the work of his white colleagues. While Du Bois is considered to have been the founder of the NAACP, he was only the editor of their magazine and their communications director.  The actual founders and original leaders of the NAACP were three “progressive” whites, Mary White Ovington, Dr. Henry Moskowitz, and William Walling.  Some of his notable, and close circle of friends were Roger Baldwin, the founder of the ACLU and Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.  Both were vehement opponents of America’s religious and capitalist system and each had a pure antagonism toward this nation.  In addition, he joined and was used by the Communist Party to attack the American capitalist system.

Washington, on the other hand, was a child of the south and was impressed with teaching on a very practical level.  He was born a slave among black people in the south, raised and educated among the poor black people of the south and lived his life and died among black people of the south. His education was begun by and among black people, and although he attended Hampton Institute, which was led by whites, much of the faculty and all the students were black.  This practical training taught Washington to rely on his own abilities only as far as they could take him, and then trust God to take over and make the seemingly impossible, possible.  Man, was no longer limited to what he was capable of, rather with the help of a personal and caring God, he was capable of much more.

Du Bois, who was a devotee of Darwinism, presented his Talented Tenth model as the way to elevate the black race along with agitation for civil rights.  This Talented Tenth model was nothing more than an elitist idea based upon the Darwinian theory of the “survival of the fittest.”  In the Du Bois version of this theory, there were those within the race superior and those who were incapable of being elevated without the help of those of superior intellect. These black elite, these select, or fittest, who were to be the saviors of the race, were the only ones among the race worthy or attention and investment of time and energy.  Theoretically, once they had arrived they would reach back and raise the rest of their race.  This thought was very much that of Margaret Sanger and her idea of eugenics as weeding out the unfit. In unleashing her Negro Project Sanger enlisted the help of Du Bois and several “Talented Tenth,” black pastors and leaders. In doing this she stated:

“The minister’s work is also important and he should be trained, perhaps by the Federation as to our ideals and the goal that we hope to reach. We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.” (letter to Clarence J. Gamble, M.D.-1939)

In 1932 Du Bois wrote an article entitled: Black Folk and Birth Control.  In it, he stated that the Negro must learn that among human races and groups, as among vegetables, quality and not mere quantity really counts.”  And that, “the more intelligent class exercised birth control, and the increase among Negroes, even more than the increase among whites, is from that part of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear their children properly.” (A Question of Negro health; June 1932 issue of The Birth Control Review p.166)  This belief is called “popular Eugenics” and was later adopted and supported by many notable black ministers, educators, and leaders.  Among them were:

  • Claude A. Barnett, director, Associated Negro Press, Chicago
  • Michael J. Bent, M.D., Meharry Medical School, Nashville
  • Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, president, National Council of Negro Women, Washington, D.C., special advisor to President Roosevelt on minority groups, and founder of Bethune-Cookman College, Daytona Beach
  • Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, cum laude graduate of Tufts, president of Alpha Kappa Alpha (the nation’s oldest black sorority), Washington, D.C.
  • Charles S. Johnson, president, Fisk University, Nashville
  • Eugene Kinckle Jones, executive secretary, National Urban League, New York
  • Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., pastor, Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York
  • Bishop David H. Sims, pastor, African Methodist Episcopal Church, Philadelphia
  • Arthur Spingarn, president, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
  • Charles S. Johnson the first black president of Fisk University later wrote that:“‘Eugenic discrimination’ was necessary for blacks.” (A Question of Negro Health,” The Birth Control Review, June 1932, p.167-169)

We can add a long list of modern day black “leaders” who still support these notions.

After the death of Booker T. Washington, when it was thought Du Bois would take on the mantle of the unifying black leader, Marcus Garvey usurped that from him.  This led to a new attack and destruction of Garvey by Du Bois and his white supporters.  Garvey, a devoted follower of the teachings of Booker T. Washington, was silenced by being run out of America.

Washington, on the other hand, believed that civilizations were built upon foundations and that any race that will succeed must begin by laying a foundation from the bottom and not at the top.  This foundation is built upon the common man and woman.  The race is as strong as its lowest representatives. It would not be the intellectual elite nor the politicians who would establish a successful society, rather your common man and woman.  He believed that it would be the tests and tasks, overcome by the race that would lead to eventual and inevitable parity among races.  This was reflected in his many writings and statements such as:

“You may fill your heads with knowledge or skillfully train your hands, but unless it is based upon high, upright character, upon a true heart, it will amount to nothing. You will be no better than the most ignorant.

The highest test of the civilization of any race is in its willingness to extend a helping hand to the less fortunate. A race like an individual lifts itself up by lifting others up.

There is no permanent safety for any of us or for our institutions except in the enlightenment of the whole people, except in continuing to educate until people everywhere be too big to be little, too broad to be narrow, be too high to stoop to littleness and meanness.

When measured by the standard of eternal, or even present justice, that race is greatest that has learned to exhibit the greatest patience, the greatest self-control, the greatest forbearance, the greatest interest in the poor, in the unfortunate – that has been able to live up in a high and pure atmosphere, and to dwell above hatred and acts of cruelty. He who would become greatest among us must become the least.” All quotes found at “In His Words”

Washington’s Tuskegee experiment and legacy were and are the example of his “theory” worked out in real-life, and it was a tremendous, practical and tangible success.  Du Bois, on the other hand, had no real-life laboratory in which to test his theories except possibly the inner cities of America and to this day, although many have tried to champion his theories and ideology we have had no tangible evidence of success.  Never the less, by the late 1950s and into the 1960s, the race made the decision to adopt the ideas and strategies of Du Bois and to reject those of Washington.  It was not enough, though, just to reject the teaching and admonition of Dr. Washington. The proponents of agitation, revolution and of intellectual elitism felt it necessary to reject the man as well.  In the process

Fast forward to today, and we see the outworking of the two opposing theories.  Today we see the children of the Du Bois ideology, modern black liberals- the intellectual elite, ruling the black community through their surrogates, and we also see the byproduct.  These are black politicians, renown ministers, and celebrities addicted to the ideas of Du Bois, and his circle of influences, ala, Sanger & Baldwin, in many cases not even knowing their origins. Despite the abysmal failure of this thinking, these so-called leaders in the black community still cling to these ideas and are somehow successful in blaming others for their failures.

At the same time those who challenge this thinking, modern black conservatives, are considered Uncle Toms and sellouts.  I believe it is time to re-evaluate, time for a fresh look at where we are, how we got here, and how we go forward.

It is paradigm shift time in Black America.  This paradigm is not a new one. An ex-slave who had a vision for his people gave it to us over 120 years ago.  May he once and for all time be vindicated and in doing so, finally free a race that he believed was destined for greatness in this earth.

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