The Nationalist Option And Its Consequences on the Movement Towards Equality

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Last updated: November 10, 2019

Rising out of slavery and reconstruction were questions of the capacity of blacks for education, citizenship, and leadership. Black leaders and writers came up with separate sollutions to answer these questions, ultimatly seeking the same outcome of equality for African American people in the United States. These separate sollutions were a “dialectical struggle” within the black community between the opposing forces of black nationalists such as Booker T. Washington, and integrationalists such as W. E. B.

DuBois. Commentaries on the meaning of racial uplift and the role of black leadership in pursuing it were often shaded by social Darwinian conceptions of racial struggle, specifically, the view that “two distinct races on the same land mass could never coexist, as the dominant race would inevitably annihilate the subordinated one” (Gaines, 1996, p. 36).

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Out of these conceptions, the nationalist option was born, which stressed that the way to achieve equality for black people in America was to either organize around their own cultural ancestry and formulate a government that would offer equality or to the acquisition of industrial training and uplift through education. This opposed the integrationalist option, which stressed upward mobility through the pursuit of higher education and direct political involvment.Both options maintained that the ulimate goal was for blacks to obtain equality. However, the nationalist option proves less effective than the integrationalist option because it consequently yeilds to less equality between blacks and whites, by calling on the black community to limit themselves to industrial skills and to abstain from politics.

The ideas of several black leaders and writers led to the formation of the nationalist option. For instance, Frances Harper wrote a novel in 1892 set during the time of slavery and emancipation.She described blacks’ current plight by protraying social relations between “stonger and weaker races. ” She posed a choice between the two possiblities of domination or uplift. Through her novel, Harper sought to promote a moral vision of racial uplift idealogy that might revive the abolitionist, Radical Republican legacy of the reconstruction era. For Harper and later generations of blacks, uplift would be epitomized by the quest of blacks for literacty, higher education, power, and self-reliance (Gaines, 1996, p. 7).

As Harper’s writing suggests, uplift ideology was influenced by social Darwinist theory of the time. In addressing the problems of class conflict as well, the writings of influential social theorists such as Herbert Spence, Benjamin Kidd, and William Graham Sumner also stressed the notion that there was a moral imperative to capitalist gains and deemphasized social conflict in favor of the notion of social “equilibration” (Buck, 1959, p. 99).

In addition, racial separation was said to be embedded in human nature and thus impossible to legislate away. Booker T. Washington, a prominent black educator and smokesman, was adapting uplift ideaology when he declared in 1900 that black Americans would receive citizenship “through no process of artificial forcing, but through the natural law of evolution” (Davis, 1967, p. 35).Though Washington offered little that was innovative in industrial education, which both northern philanthropic foundations and southern leaders were already promoting, he became its chief black exemplar and spokesman. In his advocacy of Tuskegee Institute and its educational method, Washington revealed the accommodationist philosophy that was to characterize his career in the wider arena of race leadership. He convinced southern white employers and governors that Tuskegee offered an education that would keep blacks “down on the farm” and in the trades (Seraile, 1991, p.

3).To prospective northern donors and particularly the new self- made millionaires such as Rockefeller and Carnegie he promised to instill the idea of the Protestant work ethic. To blacks living within the horizons of the post- Reconstruction South, Washington held out industrial education as the means of escape from the web of sharecropping and debt and the achievement of attainable goals of self-employment, landownership, and small business (Davis, 1967, p. 4).

Washington cultivated local white approval and secured a small state appropriation, but it was northern donations that made Tuskegee Institute by 1900 the best-supported black educational institution in the country (Harlan, 1963, p. 22). The Atlanta Compromise Address, delivered before the Cotton States Exposition in 1895, enlarged Washington’s influence into the arena of race relations and black leadership.Washington offered black acquiescence in disfranchisement and social segregation if whites would encourage black progress in economic and educational opportunity. Hailed as a sage by whites of both sections, Washington further consolidated his influence by his widely read autobiography Up From Slavery in 1901, the founding of the National Negro Business League in 1900, his celebrated dinner at the White House in 1901, and control of patronage politics as chief black advisor to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft (p. 6).

Washington kept his white following by conservative policies and moderate utterances, but he faced growing black and white liberal opposition in the Niagara Movement (1905-9) and the NAACP (1909-), groups demanding civil rights and encouraging protest in response to white aggressions such as lynchings, disfranchisement, and segregation laws (Avery, 1989, p. 47). Washington successfully fended off these critics, often by underhanded means.At the same time, however, he tried to translate his own personal success into black advancement through secret sponsorship of civil rights suits, serving on the boards of Fisk and Howard universities, and directing philanthropic aid to these and other black colleges. His speaking tours and private persuasion tried to equalize public educational opportunities and to reduce racial violence. The year of Washington’s death marked the beginning of the Great Migration from the rural South to the urban North (Buck, 1959, p.

32).Washington’s racial philosophy, which was adjusted to the limiting conditions of his own era, did not survive the change. However, the nationalist option was based on a collaboration of many different philosophical veiw points. Marcus Garvey was also a strong leader, whose message was articulated just after the death of Booker T.

Washington. Garvey had established the UNIA in 1914 in Jamaica. The organization’s motto was One God! One Aim! One Desstiny! The UNIA’s aim was to unite “all the Negro people of the world into a great body to establish a country and a government absolutly their own” (Avery, 1989, p. 2). The destiney of the race was the redemption of Africa from its white colonial rulers (p. 63).

Garvey came to the United States in 1916 and the following year established a branch of UNIA in New York. By 1919 he had over one million followers in the United States (Gaines, 1996, p. 56). Although the UNIA’s long-range goal was a massive back-to-Africa emigration, Garvey also called on his followers, who were predominantly poor, uneducated urban blacks, to pool their resources in great commercial and industrial enterprises.For various reasons, however, Garvey’s organization began to rapidly decline in 1922 (Avery, 1989, p. 54).

Although other philosophies prevailed, including the coutering integrationalist option and the idea of non-violent resistence headed by Martin Luther King, Jr, the reasoned doctrine tied to the nationalist option did not fully dissipate. The nationalist option continued to be an influential doctrine, however it is the non-violent resistence philosophy that prevails in historical references to the civil rights movement.This is mainly because the nationalist option could never gain the type of equailty that is ultimatly sought among black leaders and the black community in the United States today. For instance, in order for great change to occur, the government needs to act. Without government enforcemnet of laws regarding segregation or voting rights, blacks will forever be placed in a subordinate position because of the prevelance of racism within the United States. Booker T.Washington had often proclaimed, in accordance with northern white philanthropists, religious and civic leaders, and southern politicians and planter elites, that blacks forsake politics for an indefinite period of time (Gaines, 1996, p. 39).

He discredidted the political and educational gains of Reconstruction as “mistakes,” their reforms “artificial and forced. ” Perhaps the gravest of these errors was the “desire to hold office” among blacks (Washington, 1986, p. 94-97).Washington’s use of the myths of black political immaturity and corruption within the repressive New South social and economic order of disfranchisement, political terror, debt slavery, and gerrymandering had grave consequences for black leadership and a black population whose only resort in those days was to leave the South, often at considerable risk from local white elites (Seraile, 1991, p.

47). The fact that Washington received so much support from white Southernors questions the implications of his beliefs and influences on the nationalist option.It is clear, through the use of Jim Crow laws as an extension of the black codes, lynching, and voting practices, that the South sought to keep blacks at a subordinate level. Therefore, the ideals that Washington stressed would ultimatly keep blacks at a lower social level, thus appeasing white southernors. With good reason, his black opponents saw his rhetoric as an attack on educated blacks.

For his part, Washington summoned the aura of religious authority then common to black leadership, also placing slavery within a divine scheme of uplift.God, for 250 years,” he proposed, “was preparing the way for redemption of the Negro through industrial development. ” As late as 1912, Washington reassured concerned whites that “we are trying to instil into the Negro mind that if education does not make the Negro humble, simple, and of service to the community, then it will no longer be encouraged” (Washington, 1904, p. 87-92). Washington seemed more sympathetic to the white cause to keep African Americans at a inferior position, rather than to the ultimate cause for equality of all people.By portraying educated blacks as suspect, unporductive, and potentially criminal, Washington echoed the general hostility toward black elites and higher education.

In suggesting that education for blacks achieved the opposite from its inteded purpose of producing a black leadership class, Washington blurred the social distinction that many educated blacks labored to maintain between themselves and the black moajority, a distinction crucial to defining and legitimizing their role as race leaders (Gaines, 1996, p. 41).With the threat of being so ignominously declassed, cast down into the urban slum underworld, it must have seemed to many educated blacks that they had no alternative, really, but to insist on their moral superiority to the black masses, both urban and rural.

Whether or not they endorsed Washinton’s program, many blakcs took an avid interest in reforming and controlling the behavior of poor blacks. “something must be done,” said a participant in the Hapton Negro Conference, referring to the moral shortcomings of the black masses, “or these people will drag us down” (Seraile, 1991, p. 7). Such a view reflected prevailing middle-class anxieties about the poor as a threatening source of moral and social disorder, or in other words, moral and social disorder in terms of the equailty of blacks. Obviously, Washington’s ideas, which reflect upon the nationalist option as a whole, varied from the integrationalist pursuit of uplift throught higher education and change through political action. Marcus Garvey’s organization, which suffered from rapid decline in the 1920’s, also proved to have intentions which were uncompatible with a movement towards equality.Various newspaper reports claimed that Garvey had established relations with the notorious Klu Klux Klan (Avery, 1989, p.

67). In deep financial trouble, Garvey probably calculated that, by coming to terms with the Klan, which also favored racial separation, he would have easier access to the black masses in the South. As DuBois pointed out, “the Klan’s sympathy would enable him to enter the South, where he dhad not dared to work, and exploit the ignorant black millions” (Avery, 1989, p. 67). Garvey did not deny reports that he had gone to Atlanta earlier in the year to confer with Edward Young Clarke, the imperial head of the Klu Klux Klan.In New York on the night of July 9th, Garvey told four thousand followers, “The Klan is going to make this a white country. They are perfectly honest and frank about it. Fighting them is not going to get you anywhere” (Jacques-Garvey, 1961, p.

7). Garvey’s support for the Klu Klux Klan vastly breaches the goal of the civil rights movement, based on everything that the KKK stands for. Equality would be impossible to achieve under an orgainization the supported groups like the KKK, whose sole purpose is to maintain that blacks are not given the chance for upward mobility through the enforcement of Jim Crow laws.Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement could also never be a suitable alternative to the unsatisfactory conditions of American life as they affect the Negro. Escape, either emotional or physical, is neither a realistic or lasting answer. Nevertheless, had Garvey offered “realistic” solution to Negroes’ problems, he might never have won a mass following.

The more moderate Negro leaders, who had been unable to gain mass support, knew all too well that such solutions requiered the enthusiastic support of the dominant white society that most blacks had come to distrust (Avery, 1989, p. 3). It is clear that power had to be sought through those already in power. This, of course, would be the white elitists of the time. Garvey and Washington both realized the implications of having white supporters.

Through their support it would be easier to obtain public forums and gain greater influence. However, because of the capitalist based white system under which America flouished, leaders were forced to formulate ideals that would captivate both the white and black community.The nationalist option did just that, because it claimed that blacks could become self-sufficient and in a sense “equal,” while still promising whites that blacks would never gain too much complete power or control. The main source of change comes through government intervention, which ultimatly is achieved through political action as a necessary means to accomplish the goal of equality. Since the fountain head of the nationalist option stems from the ideas of Booker T.

Washington and Marcus Garvery who objected to black political involvment, it is clear that the nationalist option could never succeed.Simply avoiding the problem by leaving the country and its social stratifications behind, or accepting a subordinate position in society does not produce equality among blacks and whites. The nationalist option yeilds to the capitalist system of America, which leaves room for advancment, but not complete and utter equality.

By joining forces with racist Southern elites and the Klu Klux Klan, leaders counter-act advancment efforts by complying with groups that seek to push blacks down to a level of subordination.

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