Model Black Conservative

In a piece published in early October, Atlanta Journal-Constitution political columnist Jim Galloway implicitly casts Booker T. Washington as a model black conservative and compares him with Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain:

When the marches of the 1950s and ’60s came, it was Du Bois’ strategy of political confrontation that was extolled. Washington’s out-of-step economic message, with its lack of emphasis on mass, public martyrdom, was demonized as “accomodationist.” African-American conservatism, in many respects, has yet to recover.

Journalist and memoirist Ta Nehisi-Coates writing in The Atlantic finds much in Galloway’s piece to criticize but makes the implicit reference explicit:

In short, Washington was a legitimate organic black conservative, rooted in the black community, propelled forth by his relationship to that community.

Both pieces are worth reading, and not only because they suggest that the debate around Booker T. Washington has drifted from its historical moorings and been recast – remixed? scrambled? – for the modern era. What exactly does it mean to call Washington a black “conservative”?

American political history, in this regard, isn’t exactly friendly to direct analogies: “Conservatives” up until the 1930s were Democrats and not Republicans; Republican politics today are hardly “accommodationist”; and philosophies of “self-help” and “economic advancement” generally associated with Washington are mainstream obsessions that cross party lines.

Coates had earlier described Washington as a model black conservative in an Atlantic profile of the entertainer and activist Bill Cosby:

Cosby’s most obvious antecedent is Booker T. Washington. At the turn of the 20th century, Washington married a defense of the white South with a call for black self-reliance and became the most prominent black leader of his day. He argued that southern whites should be given time to adjust to emancipation; in the meantime, blacks should advance themselves not by voting and running for office but by working, and ultimately owning, the land.

Coates sums up the contemporary characterization of Washington, consistent with the early NAACP’s rejection of his leadership. Biographer Robert J. Norrell puts forward a different interpretation:

The irony of Washington’s displacement by the NAACP was that he had anticipated almost all of the NAACP’s civil-rights agenda. Over the previous two decades he had protested discrimination on railroads, lynching, unfair voting qualifications, and discriminatory funding in education. He had organized and financed court challenges to disenfranchisement, jury discrimination, and peonage.

The NAACP likewise focused on segregated public accommodations, lynching and the criminal justice system, and disenfranchisement. It would eventually echo Washington’s concerns about economic discrimination and equal education rights. Its efforts to lobby Congress for legislation against lynching and for civil-rights protections closely resembled Washington’s pressure at the Capitol to confirm William Crum [as revenue collector for the Port of Charleston].

The NAACP would also regularly condemn the ugly stereotypes prevalent in American life. Indeed, a consensus on the measures needed to protect black rights had emerged as early as 1900. By 1910 there was little debate among African Americans about the necessity for direct challenges to discrimination. The argument was whether they should be mounted aggressively and defiantly, or carefully and indirectly.


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