Workers Vanguard No. 1000
13 April 2012
Separate but Equal Poison
The Rehabilitation of Booker T. Washington
The following is a presentation, edited for publication, by Don Alexander of the Spartacist League Central Committee at a March 6 forum in New York City.
In part, the origin of this talk grew out of my returning from doing political work in South Africa a decade ago. I noticed coming back here that a lot of black people were reading Booker T. Washington. I went also to my hometown in Southern California, and some very little black newspaper there had a series of articles on him. And I began to bump into people in the library reading his autobiography, Up From Slavery, and said, “Something is going on.”
Well, what’s going on is what I want to talk about because Booker T. Washington was a sellout. He was an Uncle Tom, which is a conservative black misleader kowtowing to white ruling-class interests. This was basic understanding on the part of any of us who became radicalized in the 1960s. But now we have to reaffirm these truths in the face of the prodigious output of lying hypocritical capitalist mouthpieces.
His rehabilitation grows out of the relative dearth of class and social struggles today, what we call a sort of one-sided class war. History is being reinvented by self-proclaimed spokesmen for the oppressed, so that yesterday’s chumps are turned into today’s champs. There’s an ongoing bourgeois campaign to rehabilitate the pro-segregationist, anti-labor, pro-imperialist legacy of Booker T. Washington. We have to defeat such reactionary trends in order to politically arm the working class and its allies to wage a revolutionary struggle for the smashing of capitalist rule.
From the halls of academia to union halls to the Commander-in-Chief Obama, Washington is being touted as some kind of spokesman for black freedom. This is a gross falsification of history in the service of reconciling the oppressed with their oppressors. Bound up with this falsification is a new reality of the first black president of the U.S., Barack Obama. This is supposed to mean, according to what he stated, that black people are 90 percent free. I don’t know how you can be 90 percent free! We oppose on principle any support to capitalist parties—Democrats, Republicans and Greens. The capitalist system cannot be reformed but must be smashed by proletarian revolution.
Tuskegee: Training for Industrial Slavery
Washington was called by some the “Black Moses.” He was born in 1856 in Franklin County, Virginia, to a slave mother and a white father whom he never knew. His name is synonymous with the Tuskegee Institute—a school to train black men and women in menial labor and instill an ethic of so-called self-help. He presided over Tuskegee from 1881 to his death in 1915.
His stepfather relocated his family to a mining town. Eventually the young Booker briefly became a miner, around the age of 12. He didn’t like that very much. He worked in a salt mine, hard work. Eventually he found work for a well-to-do white family in a job that inculcated in him the importance of understanding hard work and cleanliness and above all the toothbrush, which is what he lectured a lot of the Tuskegee students about. The toothbrush.
According to Washington, the most important person who shaped him was a man named General Samuel Chapman Armstrong. Armstrong was born and raised in Hawaii. He was the son of educational missionaries who worked to “civilize” indigenous Hawaiians. He was also a commander of a black regiment during the Civil War.
After the Civil War, Armstrong became a superintendent in the Virginia Freedmen’s Bureau, which in a limited way sought to ameliorate the desperate plight of the black freedmen. His perspective was that he had to do something to teach the black freedmen what the dignity of labor is. He was considered ideal to teach black people because of his Civil War experience. So after he left the Freedmen’s Bureau he applied the colonialist-inspired training in Hawaii that he acquired at an early age to set up the Hampton “school” in West Virginia. Some called this less a school and more like a church and army barracks. Hampton was geared to teaching black Southerners to “stay in their place”—menial labor.
Black women were taught cooking, cleaning, dusting. Maybe for two hours at the end of the day people got a chance to study the Three R’s. One biographer of Armstrong wrote:
“The General thought of blacks primarily in terms of what they could contribute to the economic prosperity of the country. In harmony with the racial economics of his age, Armstrong considered blacks to be inferior, barbaric, and ugly creatures—with a ‘facial angle,’ ‘thicker cranium,’ ‘two inch longer arm,’ and ‘color of skin’ that were all repulsive, but ‘no barrier to industry’.”
—Donald Spivey, Schooling for the New Slavery (1978)
He looked at it in terms of how they could serve and build prosperity for Southern and Northern industrialists. Two years before he died in 1893, Armstrong made it clear that he was never dreaming of “social equality.”
His views were in accordance with the viciously racist ideology of his time, promulgated especially at the end of the 19th century. There were a lot of so-called scholars preaching pseudoscientific racism to prove “black inferiority” and “white superiority.” Also, there were others who were predicting the ultimate extinction of the black race.
Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama was modeled after Hampton. It was a drilling ground for non-union, menial agricultural labor. And as I pointed out, there was very little of teaching the basics going on. Religious service was mandatory and every person had a seat, so you didn’t get out of it. Tuskegee was really a school, as one fellow called it, for industrial slavery in the “New South” of the time.
Washington’s program of self-help, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and black capitalism is a renunciation of a fight for black equality and acceptance of racist segregation. It had influence on an assortment of black nationalist organizations and leaders over the years, such as Marcus Garvey, who from Jamaica was following closely the work of the Tuskegee Institute. One reason he emigrated to the U.S. was to meet and study under Washington, but Washington died shortly before he arrived. The Nation of Islam is another organization which stands in that tradition.
Washington’s reactionary program was translated on the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1995. The Nation of Islam, led by the reactionary nationalist, anti-Semitic demagogue Louis Farrakhan (the same man who wanted Malcolm X dead) staged his Million Man March. This was a reactionary mobilization of the oppressed that was also directed against women, especially black women. This is the program that blames black people for their own oppression. And it was no accident that then-president Bill Clinton even gave it a nod of approval.
For Revolutionary Integrationism!
As revolutionary Marxists, the Spartacist League fights for the class-struggle program of revolutionary integration: championing struggles for black equality while emphasizing that the liberation of black people from color-caste oppression can be achieved only in an egalitarian socialist society. Any serious struggle for black liberation in racist capitalist America has revolutionary implications. Linked to the power of the integrated labor movement, it is a potential dagger aimed straight at the heart of the capitalist private property system, which is the source of the special oppression of black people.
Our program is directly counterposed to the dead-end program of liberal integrationism—represented by the “respectable,” legalistic organizations such as the NAACP—and black separatism. The program of the former is based upon step-at-a-time gradualism, preaching mainly reliance on the capitalist courts for justice. The black separatists despair of the possibility of mobilizing the multiracial working class to fight for black freedom. They both defend the capitalist system against the exploited and oppressed. There can be no separate road to black liberation. It is in the interest of the working class to fight for black freedom, which is an inseparable part of the struggle for abolishing the system of capitalist exploitation through socialist revolution.
The period of history we are living in right now remains the epoch of imperialist decay. The Bolshevik revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky pointed out that in periods of gigantic defeats for the proletariat, consciousness regresses to previous epochs, to pre-Marxist ideas. Such is the case today, two decades after capitalist counterrevolution in the former Soviet Union and East Europe, as reflected by the rehabilitation of bourgeois scoundrels such as the arch-reactionary black capitalist political spokesman Booker T. Washington. You see it also with the ghosts of the Confederacy, like in Brooklyn on Memorial Day last year, when they lauded some Confederate soldier buried in Green-Wood Cemetery.
The tumultuous struggles of the civil rights movement, which challenged the anti-Communist Cold War consensus, resulted in the destruction of Jim Crow legalized segregation. However, that movement was derailed by the pro-capitalist program of its liberal leadership—ranging from King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to Roy Wilkins’ NAACP—which counseled reliance on the Democrats, the federal government and the courts. When the civil rights movement moved North, it ran into the solid core of racist American capitalism, manifested by dilapidated housing and schools, rampant cop brutality, entrenched unemployment. The liberals were incapable of addressing the material roots of black oppression because above all they sought to keep that struggle within the bounds of capitalism.
Busing for school integration in the mid 1970s was knifed in the back by liberal Democrats and the reformists, such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Workers World’s Youth Against War and Fascism, who tailed them. The reformists’ reliance on Democratic politicians and the bourgeois state—for example, the SWP’s call for federal troops to Boston—facilitated the defeat of school integration by very well-organized and deadly anti-busing forces.
A searing symbol of the virulent racist anti-busing backlash was a famous photograph of a black lawyer in Boston being speared with a flag pole with the American flag on it, wielded by racists. We fought for the independent mobilization of labor to fight for elementary democratic rights for black people. We fought for labor-black defense guards to defend the black schoolchildren and for extending busing to the suburbs, where there undoubtedly existed better schools. Busing was no cure-all, no panacea, but we defended it because it was a partial step toward black equality.
Historically, when black people have perceived an opening for integration, they have fought for it. For some years after the defeat of school integration in Boston and elsewhere, battles were still being fought out in the South. In May 1983, a 10,000-strong march in Norfolk, Virginia, to defend busing had a significant component of black ILA longshoremen. Ex-civil rights leader Jesse Jackson conveyed to those assembled there that he came to march not for desegregation but for voter registration, that is, for the Democrats. Jackson’s Operation PUSH organization wanted “integration” all right: into the boardrooms of Wall Street and petty capitalist enterprises.
The reformist left—the International Socialist Organization, Workers World and others—lie that the pro-Democratic Party liberal Martin Luther King was becoming a revolutionary toward the end of his life. Today this myth is standard fare. It’s preposterous on a number of levels. You don’t have to know everything about King’s political history to see through this bull, but you do know that you don’t get to have a monument in Washington, D.C., unless you have played a part in helping the oppressors to keep the oppressed in line.
The black liberal ideologue (and perennial talking head) Michael Eric Dyson recently wrote that “Martin Luther King, Jr., ten days before he died, said before the Rabbinical Assembly of America that black people ought to practice ‘temporary segregation’ unless we’re going to be ‘integrated out of power’.” Now, Dyson described this in positive terms as a “complex form of solidarity.” What we’ve got to deal with!
Booker T. Washington
Today there is hardly a pretense of any struggle for integration. In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation in the schools had a qualifier attached to it: “with all deliberate speed.” This was a signal to the racists—so-called states’ righters—that they could undermine it and sabotage it at will. In 2007, the Supreme Court threw out school desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville, giving the green light to those seeking to overturn some 1,000 school integration plans across the country. As we pointed out in “Supreme Court: Segregation Forever” (WV No. 895, 6 July 2007): “In eviscerating the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that banned school segregation, the Court majority in essence turned the clock back over a hundred years to the infamous 1896 ‘separate but equal’ Plessy v. Ferguson ruling—a cornerstone of the racist Jim Crow system.”
Petty-bourgeois ideologues spread the lie that integration failed despite huge resources expended on it. There were never significant resources devoted to integrating housing or education. What is promoted instead by the bourgeois liberals is the charade of “diversity,” which disguises the perpetuation of the racist status quo. That’s why we are being served up “separate but equal” poison by the rulers and their ideologues.
Now I’m going to return to Booker T. Washington, beginning with a statement attributed to the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin. When he heard that black Americans were led by a conservative leader, he reportedly roared with laughter. What on earth, he exclaimed, have they to conserve?
Obama in a May 2011 commencement speech at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee, stated that Washington “entered this world a slave on a Southern plantation. But he would leave this world as the leader of a growing civil rights movement and the president of the world famous Tuskegee Institute.” Had anyone made such a claim to Booker T. Washington during his lifetime, he probably would have sued for defamation. In Up From Slavery, he excoriated black freedmen who, he said, during Reconstruction sought a too-rapid improvement in their lives. He also denounced them for what he portrayed as their general uncouthness.
It was the hard struggles of the black freedmen and women during Reconstruction, in alliance with the Radical Republicans, that led to the establishment of public education for the black and white poor. The bourgeoisie today is trying to destroy that. With the escalating bipartisan attacks on public education, teachers unions are under attack, and there is a concomitant growth of charter schools.
The comment by Obama that I quoted deliberately distorts the historical record. He is invoking the legacy of a capitalist politician who became an effective spokesman for the interests of the U.S. ruling class in the period of the rise of U.S. imperialism, at the end of the 19th century. Today, in the period of the decay of this system, Wall Street money sharks cleverly promoted to the presidency a black man (but not too black) to be the CEO of their system.
Like Booker T. Washington, Obama lost no time in showing how he can “keep black people in their place.” For example, on Father’s Day, June 15, 2008, he addressed a black church in Chicago, stating that “in the African American community...more than half of all black children live in single-parent households,” and “too many fathers [are] missing from too many lives and too many homes.... These absent black fathers have abandoned their responsibilities, acting more like boys instead of men.” Saying “acting like boys” in the past would have been fighting words. Blaming the oppressed for their oppression is beating them down, convincing them that they are the source of their own problems.
The Jim Crow South
The Trotskyists of the Workers Party U.S., our revolutionary forerunners, ran an article titled “Booker T. Washington—He Pleased the Bourgeoisie” in the New Militant (2 February 1935). They put forth a Marxist appraisal of this “leader”:
“In speaking once of social equality for Negroes, Washington said: ‘In things industrial we can be as close as one, but in things social as separate as the fingers on the hands.’
“This pleased his white financial masters and they covered him with additional honor and glory in the form of more endowments for his institution. They well knew that so long as such ideas were shoved down the throats of the Negro and white workers there would be little danger of unity and their position as robbers of the American workers, would be secure.”
The veteran Trotskyist Richard Fraser, whose programmatic contributions on the black question we embrace, stated in his lectures in 1954, titled “The Negro Struggle and the Proletarian Revolution”:
“The economic well-being and the political stability of the capitalist class rest upon the renewed degradation of the Negro people after the Civil War.
“It was this degradation that brought forth Booker T. Washington. He was the instrument by which the Negroes acceded to the terms of defeat.”
—printed in the Prometheus Research Library’s
In Memoriam: Richard S. Fraser, Prometheus Research Series No. 3 (August 1990)
Fraser pointed out that in his famous Atlanta speech in 1895, Washington formally renounced the struggle for equality.
In pursuit of their class interests, the Northern capitalists betrayed the fight for black equality following the Civil War. The Compromise of 1877, which settled a disputed election, placed the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House in exchange for pulling the Federal troops—the occupying Union Army—from the South. The Northern capitalists feared an alliance between the Southern planters and agrarian interests in the West and temporarily backed voting and civil rights for the black freedmen. However, the Radical Republicans’ demand for land confiscation ran counter to the bourgeoisie’s class interests. The more conservative Republicans opposed this as a dangerous precedent that would perhaps put some wrong ideas in the heads of their wage slaves in the North, who might get rid of the “sacred” capitalist private property system.
Through Klan terror, intimidation, fraud and disenfranchisement, the Northern capitalists and their Southern allies “reconciled.” The political counterrevolution brought to power what became known as the Redeemer governments supported by Northern capital. The freedmen were pushed out of skilled jobs they previously held and forced into conditions of semi-servitude through debt peonage, sharecropping and convict leasing (now referred to as “slavery by another name”). Between 1885 and 1900, 2,500 lynchings, mostly of black people, occurred in the United States. This led Mark Twain to write an essay titled “The United States of Lyncherdom.”
There was a long depression during the 1890s and also bitterly fought labor struggles throughout the South, including a protracted strike in 1894 of black and white coal miners in Alabama. The Knights of Labor undertook organizing black workers into unions, with mixed results. Initially they stood against racial discrimination in the unions. But they were overwhelmed by, and capitulated to, the galloping white-supremacist reaction, eventually allowing separate charters for the black Knights of Labor members.
There was also a Populist revolt against “the monopolists” and for the “little people.” During this period, nearly a quarter of ex-slaves had farms, and many white farmers were being ruined and driven to join with their black counterparts. There was a tentative union between black and white farmers, but it was ultimately doomed to failure.
One of the main Populist leaders was Tom Watson of Georgia, a former Democrat. Watson and the Populists won support from poor black and white farmers and sharecroppers, not just on isolated farms but also in what was known as Alabama’s “Black Belt” industrial area. This caught the attention of then-president Grover Cleveland. The prospect of joint class struggle against the capitalist exploiters scared the hell out of them. Big Business mobilized to smash the Populists. When Watson ran for Congress in 1892 on the Populist ticket, the capitalists and Southern planters raised $40,000 to defeat him, a considerable sum at that time. President Cleveland remarked that defeating Watson was just as important as his own election. After he was defeated, Watson became a vile white-supremacist demagogue.
As we stated in our programmatic document on the fight for black liberation, “Black and Red” (reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 9, “Basic Documents of the Spartacist League”): “The small farmer class itself could not be a real contender for political power in a capitalist society, while the dynamics of private farming inevitably brought about sharp competition among the farmers.” With the bloody defeat of Populism and the overturning of democratic rights for blacks, the stage was set for the subsequent rapid disenfranchisement of black people and poor whites and the codification of Jim Crow segregation. That resulted in the total consolidation of black people as a race-color caste, integrated into the U.S. capitalist economy but forcibly segregated at the bottom of society.
Policing Southern Black Labor
After the defeat of the Populists, Southern capitalists and planters and especially the wealthy Northern capitalists began to seriously cultivate Booker T. Washington. His philosophy of “industrial education” was bound up with his anti-union message. He stressed the importance of staying in your place and not struggling for your rights. Speaking to a convention of industrialists in Alabama in the late 1890s, he said: “It is here alone, by reason of the presence of the Negro, that capital is freed from the tyranny and despotism that prevents you from employing whom you please.” What he meant was seen at Tuskegee, where some of the graduates—for example, teachers and social workers—were enlisted to preach subservience to the bosses. They were sent to mining areas and other workplaces to exhort black workers to work harder, to obey management, to avoid unions and to stick with the church.
Some workers were not listening. One report stated, “A Birmingham camp physician noted in 1907 that ‘the churches wield only a limited influence’ over the lives of black miners, who ‘make no pretense toward being religious, even tho [sic] moral’.”
White bosses sent Booker T. Washington twice to Norfolk, Virginia, to help police black workers. The bosses threatened to hire immigrant labor. Washington was an enemy of immigrant workers. In his Atlanta address of 1895, he railed against them: “To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits for the prosperity of the South, were I permitted I would repeat what I say to my own race, ‘cast down your bucket where you are’.”
As labor historian Brian Kelly noted in “Sentinels for New South Industry” (Labor History, Vol. 44, No. 3, 2003): “Employers frustrated with their lack of success in anchoring black workers to steady, full-time industrial labor frequently solicited race leaders’ advice, and many responded enthusiastically.” Washington spoke on at least two occasions to orchestrated mass meetings at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, one of the largest employers of black industrial labor in the South. He reportedly exhorted workers to “stick to their jobs and, instead of recklessly and foolishly spending their good wages, build better homes and churches.”
Booker T. Washington’s imperialist masters made very good use of him. He had the ear of presidents like the “progressive” Theodore Roosevelt, who had earlier been Assistant Secretary of the Navy when U.S. imperialism was butchering Filipino independence fighters, a history which is still very well known there today.
Roosevelt got Washington’s help in introducing dark-skinned Cubans to the “American Way” after the Spanish-American War of 1898. Some black Cubans attended Tuskegee. According to one account cited by Kelly: “In 1898 Washington entered an arrangement with the US military allowing matriculation of Cuban and Puerto Rican students at Tuskegee Institute. Some among them led a series of strikes and mini-rebellions at Tuskegee over complaints about food and prohibitions against their playing baseball on Sundays.” Largely because of these students, “the school had to construct a guardhouse. The Cubans refused to eat...and struck against their work. When a teacher and a student tried to put [one of their leaders] in jail, his compatriots jumped them, but they succeeded in making the arrest. Guns were flourished before order was restored.” Black American students also staged a brief strike there in 1903; it didn’t last very long.
Washington’s Black Critics
The early 20th century was known as the Progressive Era, with mild liberal reforms which, of course, didn’t touch the foundations of the capitalist system. There was a small but vocal coterie of black critics of Washington’s “bootstraps” philosophy. One of the most outspoken was black journalist Monroe Trotter, who resided in Boston and was close friends with W.E.B. Du Bois. Trotter was jailed in 1903 for “disturbing the peace” during a speech Washington gave there. Washington had his spies very busy trying to ferret out opponents who might show up. Washington supporters had a hard time restraining the hecklers and maintaining order. After Trotter tried to speak, it got into the white and black newspapers for the first time that there was a black opposition to Washington’s accommodationist program.
W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the most prominent critics of Washington in the early 20th century. Du Bois criticized Washington for abandoning any struggle for political and civil rights. Du Bois envisioned a “talented tenth” leadership of college-educated blacks who were presumably uniquely equipped to lead the black masses in struggles for higher education, political power and basic democratic rights. Du Bois didn’t reject everything favored by Washington. He stated in his book The Souls of Black Folk: “So far as Mr. Washington preaches Thrift, Patience, and Industrial training for the masses, we must hold up his hands and strive with him.” In fact, they were friends for a while.
In 1903, Du Bois taught summer school at Tuskegee and he regularly dined with Washington. But when Du Bois came out with his book criticizing his leadership, Washington took off the gloves. Unknown to the public, Washington had behind the scenes funded a number of black newspapers. He made sure that Du Bois’ book would get unfavorable reviews. In 1904, Washington organized a meeting of black “notables”—Du Bois was invited—at Carnegie Hall. Du Bois got there and saw that Washington had all his Bookerites there. He was outmaneuvered. They set up some committee called the “Committee of 12” that was elected to pursue “progress” for blacks, and it disappeared into the mist of do-nothingness.
In 1905, Du Bois was one of the initiators of the Niagara movement. This eventually led to the creation of the NAACP, which was initially led by reformist social democrats. Oswald Garrison Villard, grandson of the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (who represented the “moral suasion” wing of the abolitionist movement), was one of its leading forces.
Washington faced some severe trials in 1906. There was the anti-black pogrom in Atlanta that began on September 22. It lasted for five days. Lynch mobs pulled black passengers from streetcars, destroyed black businesses. Thousands of black people were driven out of Atlanta. The Atlanta newspapers fanned the flames. They printed unsubstantiated rumors of black men raping white women. There was also a gubernatorial campaign going on in which the candidates seized on the racist outcry of “black beast rapists.” A couple of dozen black people were killed during this pogrom (some estimates were a lot more), and five whites were also killed.
Washington gave a back-handed defense of the lynching; he viewed lynching in class terms—the “better” whites didn’t do that. Washington’s National Negro Business League had met in Atlanta three weeks before this racist pogrom. In his speech at that convention he stated, “The Negro is committing too much crime North and South. We should see to it, as far as our influence extends, that crimes are fewer in number; otherwise the race will permanently suffer.” So he blamed the victims for their oppression, and the bosses’ papers just ate it up. In commenting on this speech, the Atlanta Constitution ran an incendiary headline: “Law-Breaking Negroes Worst Menace to Race.”
At the time of the pogrom, Du Bois, who had been away in rural Alabama, quickly returned home to Atlanta. He grabbed his shotgun and waited. He was lucky that things had died down. Some of Washington’s supporters, like the journalist T. Thomas Fortune, advocated armed self-defense, but Washington did not want to hear anything about that.
There was another atrocity in 1906, in Brownsville on the southernmost tip of Texas, near the Mexican border. Just to give you a brief synopsis, from a new biography of Washington:
“On the evening of August 13, 1906, a band of unidentified men opened fire on the streets of Brownsville near Fort Brown, where three companies of black soldiers of the Twenty-Fifth Infantry regiment had been moved from their previous post in Nebraska. A bartender was killed and a policeman badly wounded. Just who was responsible for the incident was never proven. But townspeople who resented black soldiers in their midst blamed a dozen members of the black regiment for the shooting, even though the commander of the fort said all men were accounted for at the time. The twelve accused soldiers were imprisoned. The remainder of the regiment, 155 men, remained silent when asked what they knew of the incident. After several cursory investigations the entire regiment of 167 men was charged with insubordination, with the recommendation that they be dishonorably discharged.”
—Raymond W. Smock, Black Leadership in the Age of Jim Crow (2009)
The case went to Roosevelt for review. He waited until after the November 1906 elections to make a final decision on the black soldiers’ dismissal. He needed the black vote at the time for the Congressional elections, so he temporized. Washington implored him to discharge some of the regiments. Roosevelt refused to heed his advice. Many career soldiers with distinguished records in the Army were thrown out of the service. They lost their pay, pensions and possibility of obtaining future jobs with the federal government. Washington’s closest friends unsuccessfully urged him to break with Roosevelt.
Black women such as anti-lynching fighter Ida B. Wells were especially sharp critics of Washington’s accommodationism. Wells drew out the reactionary underpinnings of Washington’s program and his gibes against college-educated blacks: “The result is that the world which listens to him and which largely supports his educational institution, has almost unanimously decided that college education is a mistake for the Negro.”
in the Obama Years
Anti-integration, pro-Booker T. Washington sentiments are increasingly expressed by younger (and not so young) pro-Democratic Party, pro-Obama liberal academics as well as celebrities like Bill Cosby, Juan Williams and many others. A good place to start is a recent book by Stephen Tuck, an Oxford University lecturer in American History, titled We Ain’t What We Ought To Be (2010), which has been well received by many “radical” academics, such as Robin Kelley.
Tuck notes that “Washington dismissed Reconstruction as a ‘strange’ mistake. He denounced black leaders who complained about white supremacy. He then called on black southerners to stay in the South and remember that ‘no race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as writing a poem’.” In the next paragraph, Tuck suggests that Washington was a very astute leader:
“Washington’s silences were strategic. He believed that if black southerners could not have the democracy part of the American system, they should at least seek the capitalist part. With some three-fourths of black Southerners barely eking out a living on the land, he judged the capitalist part more pressing anyway.... With no state help on offer, self-help made sense.”
Juan Williams wrote a book whose title speaks volumes about the program of latter-day Booker T. Washington, pro-capitalist, accommodationist thought: Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America—and What We Can Do About It (2006). This book both defends Washington and slanders his critics, remarking: “Black leaders of all ideological stripes agreed that the key to racial progress was black people helping themselves.”
Christopher Alan Bracey, a professor of law and of African and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote an interesting book, Saviors or Sellouts: The Promise and Peril of Black Conservatism from Booker T. Washington to Condoleezza Rice (2008). Bracey seeks to shield Washington from his actual support for white supremacy, for which Washington was handsomely rewarded. Filthy rich capitalist Andrew Carnegie gave Washington and his wife lifetime income.
Bracey rails against the “black conservatives,” but he excuses their support to capitalism and covers for Washington’s reactionary program. At the end of this book, he says:
“It would be a mistake to conclude, however, that Washington’s eschewal of an open civil rights agenda and promotion of industrial education marked him as a ‘sellout.’ To some degree, it was simply a matter of emphasis. For instance, although Washington encouraged blacks to stay out of politics, he strongly opposed black disenfranchisement behind the scenes and privately financed ‘test cases’ in many southern states to challenge the constitutionality of restrictive voting laws. Though Washington supported literacy tests for voters, he publicly urged that such tests be applied fairly, and he signed petitions to state legislatures to oppose bills that would disenfranchise blacks unfairly.”
One is tempted to ask Professor Bracey: Should we then embrace the legacy of the deceased rabid segregationist South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who fathered a child with a black woman, because he “secretly” provided his daughter with financial support?
Former New Left radicals such as Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who once denounced Booker T. Washington, now praise him for having done a “masterful job.” In 1970, Ofari wrote The Myth of Black Capitalism, which among other things sharply criticized Booker T. Washington’s utopian “black capitalism.” At that time, he stated:
“That many so-called black leaders should waste black people’s valuable time and energy chasing another of the American ruling class’s myths is understandable but it is inexcusable. For black Americans have the opportunity today as never before to learn from the experiences of the many sincere genuine revolutionary people throughout the world.”
Now, without acknowledging his condemnation of Washington in the past, he belts this out:
“To understand the whole person, you have to put him in the context of the time he lived and worked.... Washington was embraced by Northern philanthropists. The Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Rosenwalds poured money into his programs and essentially subsidized Booker T. Washington. Given that endorsement, could he really have stepped outside that and said, ‘Look, segregation is wrong. We are going to march; we’re going to demonstrate, picket, and protest—use every means of political and social protest.’... Could he have challenged the philanthropists, none of whom were for black civil rights back then?... If he had spoken out, he’d have been buried.”
—Uncle Tom or New Negro? (2006)
The late Manning Marable wrote a book in 1998 called Black Leadership. He pointed out Washington’s support to strikebreaking during the bitterly fought 1908 Alabama coal miners strike. The Alabama United Mineworkers Union had 12,000 members, half of them black miners. After U.S. Steel refused to renew the workers’ contracts and ordered substantial wage cuts, the miners announced a strike. The Alabama state government sent in convicts to scab. The strikers faced ruthless attacks from police, company goons and state militia. Many of their leaders were imprisoned. Marable notes that Washington made clear his side in this bloody class battle: “Negroes must not be ‘given to strikes,’ he declared. The collective bargaining process of unionism must be avoided as ‘a form of slavery’.”
The Need for
The rulers of racist American capitalism continue to be haunted by the Civil War. It took a social revolution to uproot black chattel slavery. It will take a third American revolution, a workers revolution, to finish the Civil War.
In addition to naked force, the bourgeoisie requires deception in order to maintain its class rule. Recently you might have seen in the press a “scholarly” paper published by the creepy Manhattan Institute called the “End of the Segregated Century.” And as for more deception, Obama asserted in his January State of the Union address that “America is back.” One obvious question is: back for whom?
The downturn of this capitalist economy continues. Manufacturing is slowing. It’s the same old story: profits rise and the proletariat falls. In the U.S., some 50 million people don’t have health insurance, 10-20 million are unemployed or underemployed, the homeless population is exploding and the jails and prisons bursting at the seams. Police killings of black and Latino youth mount, and a record number of immigrants, largely Mexican, have been deported. And now there is a vicious bipartisan assault against women’s rights to have an abortion and access to contraceptives. Obama, who pretends that he’s on the side of women, panders to the anti-abortion bigots.
The Republicans are openly pro-big business. They use brass knuckles to pound into the ground the exploited and the oppressed. The Democrats—the so-called “friends of labor”—administer their blows with steel pipes wrapped in perfumed velvet gloves. So pick your poison—or better yet, don’t swallow it!
What we see today is the reality elaborated by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, that the government is an executive committee that runs the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. There is a small number of people constituting the property-owning class, which exploits the masses of working people. Abroad, U.S. imperialism murders and maims countless people with impunity. It is in the interest of the American and international proletariat to wage class struggle against their respective capitalist rulers, against imperialist occupations and wars.
We urgently need militant, integrated class struggle—for jobs for all; for a shorter workweek with no cut in pay; for massive public works at union wages; for organizing the unorganized. There has to be a fight to replace the pro-capitalist misleadership of labor with a class-struggle leadership. We need a workers party to fight for a workers government that will expropriate the capitalist exploiters. We say that those who labor must rule!
Key to this is the fight to reforge the Fourth International—an internationalist revolutionary party in the spirit of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks, who led the only successful workers revolution in history, the October Revolution of 1917. I want to end with a short quote from Lenin, who wrote to the American workers in 1919 as the Soviet regime was facing down counterrevolutionary forces trying to overthrow the newly formed workers state:
“Everywhere the working people, in spite of the influence of the old leaders with their chauvinism and opportunism penetrating them through and through, become aware of the rottenness of the bourgeois parliaments and of the necessity of the soviet power, the power of the working people, the dictatorship of the proletariat, for the sake of the emancipation of humanity from the yoke of capital. And Soviet power will win in the whole world, however furiously, however frantically the bourgeoisie of all countries rages and storms.”
—“To the American Workers”
(23 September 1919)