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Unity In Diversity? (Part 1) — Introduction:

In this episode, Unity In Diversity? In Part 1 of this series, we will explore the political and social climate up to 1920s that is going to shape the boundaries of African Americans’ ideological responses to the failure of Reconstruction.

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Integration and the NAACP

As we saw in Episode 9, W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington held views of the world that were in fundamental opposition to one another. On the one hand, Du Bois believed in social equality for African-Americans as citizens of the United States. He believed in the 14th amendment and that African Americans ought to focus their efforts on making real the promise of equal treatment under the law. In short, he believed that African Americans should stress their status as full and equal citizens in the United States – or the notion of Civil Rights.

Du Bois continued his efforts, when he and others founded the National Organization for the Enhancement of Colored People, or NAACP in 1909. Its mission: to ensure that African Americans be “physically free from peonage, mentally free from ignorance, politically free from disfranchisement, and socially free from insult.”

Their new tactics included a reliance on judicial and legislative measures to provide legal protections for African American citizenship. It’s a tactic the organization continually used – first in its lawsuit, Guinn v. The United States in 1915, which attacked the grandfather clause intended to keep former slaves away from the voting booths – later in a number of strategically formulated lawsuits culminating in the famous Brown versus Board of Education decision in 1954 that overturned a “separate but equal” clause established in the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896. In fact, it became the primary weapon of the NAACP. The organization challenged other ideological approaches such as those of Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and the Communist Party which will be discussed later in Episode 11.

The NAACP can be credited with many successes in the Civil Rights struggle, but those successes have to be measured against ubiquitous fact that the political institutions the NAACP worked with were enmeshed in white supremacy. In other words, once the grandfather clause was considered unconstitutional the political establishment bent on maintaining white supremacy simply came up with other measures to exclude or nullify the African American vote such as the white primary. The result appears like a never ending series of hurdles wherein after jumping one hurdle another series of hurdles are set up to replace it in what seems to be an endless conveyor belt.

Herein lies the central weakness of the integrationist approach – that is, there is no guarantee that the goal will ever be attained. It is on this logic that Booker T. Washington rested his ideology which would later become the core of Black Nationalism that rather than bother with jumping over hurdles to integrate into American society blacks ought to focus their efforts on creating their own society.

Booker T. Washington and Black Nationalism

In contrast to WEB Du Bois, Booker T. Washington’s reality was dominated by white supremacy enforced by law and social terrorism. He believed the route to African American prosperity could not be achieved by pushing equality with whites, but rather seeking to build one’s own communities with the infrastructure and institutions to become self-sufficient and self-sustaining, thus making the need for social integration a moot point.

The ideology that would later become the core of Black Nationalism has six central and overlapping characteristics. The first, cultural nationalism emphasizes that black people have a culture, style of life, and approach the problems of existence that is distinct from white Americans in particular and Westerners in general. As such, black nationalists tend to place a heavy emphasis on African-centered education, religion, and culture.

It’s easy to see the built-in conflict between the approach of WEB Du Bois and the NAACP and the Black Nationalist approach of Booker T. Washington – the former basing its fundamental approach based on integration and the latter approaching problems based on separatism. This is the same fundamental difference in worldview that’s going to frame the ideological divide between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (although I believe that’s been largely overplayed), and even more so between Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael a.k.a. Kwame Toure.

Because the NAACP was integrationists group bent on integrating into the white power structure and the organization has always had large numbers of liberal whites as members, Booker T. Washington attacked Du Bois as a puppet for white people. The irony here, of course, is that Booker T. Washington also sought the support of the white elite and, quite frankly, white supremacists in forwarding his own agenda.

Herein lies the central weakness of black nationalism as an approach to problems. The central paradox here is that separatism from the white political and economic power structure, and the building of an economic and political power structure within the black community begs the obvious question – how does one build a political and economic power base when very goal is to separate itself from political and economic systems of power? It’s a dilemma that Washington recognized early on as he sought economic backing from elite white benefactors.

The mantle of Booker T. Washington’s ideology of Black Nationalism would be taken up by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s, but it’s clear that as with the integrationist approach, Black Nationalism has its own drawbacks and limitations.

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