Negro Influence Helps Shape U.S. Democracy

Booker T. Washington's Thinking Affects Supreme Court Rulings

(This article was written specially for the CRIMSON by Dr. Logan, who is a professor of history at Howard University. The Negro's music is probably his most widely recognized contribution to American culture, but in this article Professor Logan examines his important influence on re-shaping the meaning of American democracy--and his loyal support of it.)

The most important contribution of the Negro to American intellectual history has been to the meaning of democracy. Perhaps the best relevant definition was posed by a question asked by Frederick Douglass in 1889. He inquired in the African Methodist Episcopal Review whether "American justice, American liberty, American civilization, American law, and American Christianity could be made to include and protect alike and forever all American citizens the rights which have been guaranteed to them by the organic and fundamental laws of the land."

Negroes participated effectively in the redefinition of democracy after the Civil War. One reason why slaveholders had opposed emancipation was the fact that they had not formulated a plan for the place of freedmen in American society. During Reconstruction, Negro members of state conventions and legislatures supported measures to abolish the post-Civil War Black Codes by which the all-white legislatures had attempted to keep the freedmen as nearly as possible in their former servile status.

Free Public Schools

Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger has pointed out that one of the most important provisions adopted during Reconstruction was the inauguration of a mandatory system of free public schools for both whites and Negroes. Negro members of the conventions and legislatures not only supported these provisions but in some instances helped to put them into effect. For example, Jonathan Gibbs, a graduate of Dartmouth College, 1852, virtually established as Superintendent of Public Instruction in Florida, 1872-1874, the public schools of that state as an orderly system.

During Reconstruction Negroes also supported provisions that liberalized the suffrage, enlarged the rights of women, abolished dueling and imprisonment for debt, reformed the organization of courts, the codes of judicial procedure and the system of county administration. Although many historians have maligned "Black Reconstruction," it clearly contributed ideas that have broadened the meaning of democracy for large numbers of Southern whites.

From the end of Reconstruction in 1877 to the turn of the century, presidents, Congress and prevailing public opinion in the North agreed to leave the "Negro Problem" in the hands of "intelligent Southern white men." Booker T. Washington, in his Atlanta "Compromise" Address, September 18, 1895, greatly strengthened this concept. The fact that a Negro opposed "artificial forcing" and urged reliance on "Southern write friends" made it one of the main currents of American thought. Hodding Carter, one of the best known contemporary Southern white liberals, has considerable support in the North when he insists "Leave us alone." There is even a residue of support in the North for White Citizens Councils when they denounce the "artificial forcing" of decisions of the United States Supreme Court.

Accepts Prevailing Belief

When Washington definitely repudiated "social equality," he also accepted the prevailing belief of most Americans, North and South. He brought the Atlanta crowd to its feet with wild cheering when he dramatically said: "In all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to human progress." The endorsement by a Negro of social inequality gave it a force that it might not otherwise have had. The year after his speech the United States Supreme Court, following the precedent of several lower federal courts and rulings of the Interstate Commerce Commission, sanctioned for the first time the doctrine of "separate but equal" accommodations in the famous case of Plessy v. Ferguson.

One of the principal reasons for opposition to the Supreme Court decision of May 17, 1954 and May 31, 1955 that reversed the Plessy doctrine is the fear that they might lead to social equality. While some Negroes, especially in the South, state that they are opposed to social equality because of danger of reprisals if they advocate it, a number are still convinced that Washington was right.

The political views of Washington attempted to halt the disfranchisement of Negroes by state constitutional amendments that Mississippi had begun in 1890 and that South Carolina was about to enact when Washington delivered his Atlanta address. Shortly thereafter he urged that the same qualifications for voting be required of whites as of Negroes and that, as the ballot box was closed, the school houses should be opened. These sound suggestions were not followed. By 1910 all the Southern states had adopted constitutional provisions or enacted legislation that disfranchised much larger numbers of Negroes than of whites. At the same time more educational facilities were provided for whites than for Negroes.

Washington believed that Negroes should rely upon capitalists rather than trade unions in seeking jobs. In his Atlanta address, he stressed the fact that Negroes had worked "without strikes and labor wars." While at times he opposed trade unions because they discriminated against Negroes, he more frequently opposed them because he received most of his support for Tuskegee Institute from Andrew Carnegie and other "Christ-like philanthropists." He thereby encouraged Northern philanthropists to aid many Negro private institutions of higher learning. On the other hand, he strengthened the hostility of Negroes to the labor movement.

Washington's most notable contribution to intellectual history was his advocacy of industrial education. To be sure, the emphasis that he placed on it permitted many Americans to assert that he opposed liberal arts and professional education for Negroes. For example, President Taft, one of Washington's strongest supporters, advised students of a Negro college in 1909: "Your race is adapted to be a race of farmers, first, last and for all times." While the controversy still continues about Washington's educational philosophy, most Negroes today recognize the need for industrial training for many Negroes. Moreover, Southern white states valued industrial training so highly that they expended it for white students while limiting it for Negroes.

Perhaps Washington's most valuable contribution was his emphasis on thrift: "The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house." While many Negroes, like other Americans, indulge in conspicuous consumption, Washington's advice has been followed by fairly large numbers.

'Full Manhood Rights'

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois did more than any other Negro to challenge Washington's leadership and to give democracy a meaning in the twentieth century that conforms to that of Douglass in 1889. In The Souls of Black Folk, 1903, he gave a restrained but trenchant criticism of the Washington school of thought and advocated the right to vote, civic equality and the education of youth according to ability. "By every civilized and peaceful method," he urged, "we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly" to the great words of the Declaration of Independence. In 1905 he founded the Niagara Movement and in the following year at Harpers Ferry drafted resolutions which proclaimed, among other things: "We will not be satisfied to take one jot or tittle less than our full manhood rights. We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and to assail the ears of America."

Since the end of slavery, Negroes on the whole have followed the advice of Du Bois and others to seek their goals "by every civilized and peaceful method." This is perhaps one reason why they have invalidated in large measure the famous dictum of William Graham Sumner that "Stateways can not change folkways." Even in the depth of the depression in the early 1930's, only about 2,400 Negroes joined the Communist Party. The loyalty of what has been America's most oppressed minority to the principles of democracy is not the least significant contribution of Negroes to the intellectual history of the United States.