My last post in my series reading through Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition was February 3 because chapter three of the book is almost 100 pages long. And I decided early on to wait until I had completed the chapter before blogging about it, though I will likely break the chapter up into a series of posts. Why was this chapter so long? Because it sets up the crucial conflict between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois, the conflict which shaped the Black Social Gospel (the subject of this volume) and the future endeavors for African American Civil Rights.
I continue to read not simply to learn more about this vital school of American theology but in the search for a richer understanding of the American tradition so that we might marshal the ideas and virtues of our past in order to confront the current national catastrophe of Trumpism which threatens the Christian gospel, morality, and basic human decency on an almost daily basis.
So the theological developments of people who lived in the midst of a racial dictatorship that daily threatened violence and daily delivered injustice and oppression might be of some use.
Let's begin with Washington and what can be admired about him. Dorrien writes at the outset that Washington's "accomplishments were colossal, and he achieved them in the face of a viciously oppressive society that erupted over any violation of Jim Crow." But then Dorrien follows up that praise with a death-delivering sentence: "But Washington believed that he had no legitimate opposition, which contributed much to his downfall--nearly as much as the fact that his humiliating strategy did not work." But more on the negatives later.
We must remember that Washington was born a slave and at the pinnacle of his power dined with the President. At the age of five he was valued at $400, Dorrien reminds us.
Washington had overcome resentment, which is a key for any person hoping to achieve moral progress. One thing I've blogged about is how much resentment, which is a moral weakness, seems to have played a role in the election. According to Dorrien, Washington realized "that bad systems made people do bad things and that people of noble spirit did not bear grudges." On the first point he seems to have anticipated Niebuhr.
He was educated by New England Congregationalists who came south after the war to educate the freed slaves. His education emphasized self-reliance and hard work, which became hallmarks of his own pedagogy. He believed education was the greatest need of his people, and he devoted his life to it, doing so in one of the most difficult of places--rural Alabama.
Dorrien reminds us that Tuskegee was "a Klan stronghold before the Klan existed," which means that in the midst of the worst of circumstances Washington achieved much, always walking a precarious line. Dorrien writes that Washington knew "that he had no margin for error." He became skilled at repressing his feelings in order to get along with white opponents of black education.
Washington's idea "rested on the promise that black economic progress would eventually dissolve the social friction between whites and blacks." As Dorrien has already pointed out, this simply did not work. Jim Crow grew worse in the years that white people were lauding Washington and his work.
He rose to national prominence by a speech called the Atlanta Compromise. Dorrien summarizes it, "The deal on the table was that if white America allowed blacks to succeed economically, black would we willing to wait for their rights." The story of Washington and the advance of Jim Crow is a reminder that sometimes incremental change becomes accommodation to evil. But one does not always know these things at the time. See my post on Frances Perkins, for example, on someone who chose to compromise her ideological purity and was later able to achieve much.
Interestingly, Dorrien points out that DuBois was not critical of the Atlanta speech. "For the rest of his life he said that the Atlanta speech, in its context, was a 'statesmanlike effort to reach understanding with the white South.' Had the white South responded with 'equal generosity,' the cause of racial justice would have moved forward."
But some African American leaders began to see Washington's compromise as an obstacle to progress, particularly because he was embraced as THE black leader by whites. Some, like Ida B. Wells, criticized him for not directly attacking lynching, though Dorrien argues that Washington did his best to address it indirectly by publishing his story Up from Slavery. Dorrien writes that the book "was published amid this mania of disenfranchisement, lynching, ramped-up segregation, and popular screeds justifying all of it."
One thing Dorrien does not shy away from his quoting the racist language of white politicians and clergy. Parts of this chapter were quite difficult to read. Important to read, but difficult. As important as it is to be reminded of the way the culture once spoke of African Americans, I don't want to print any of those obnoxious statements here. I refer you to the book.
The most difficult section was reading how the white press reacted to Booker T. Washington's dinner with Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. Here is one example, milder than many. This from a Memphis paper, "The most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States was committed yesterday by the President . . ." and from there the language becomes obscene.
This one event lost Washington any support he had from whites in the South. Dorrien writes that he "keenly understood that white nationalist rage had surged out of control. He had to calculate the chance of a violent episode every time that he spoke in the Deep South away from Tuskegee, and for months after the White House dinner he stayed in the North."