Excerpt: 'Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice'

W. E. B. Du Bois thought differently. Cerebral, assertive, and utterly determined, Du Bois was born and reared in Massachusetts, graduated from Fisk University, studied in Berlin, earned a doctorate from Harvard, and was an altogether different type of leader than Washington was. Du Bois's views on the clearest path to racial progress differed markedly from Washington's, and the two became ideological rivals. In time, Du Bois's influence would surpass that of the elder man. He would become the leader of the black freedom struggle, and the most important black figure in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century.

Du Bois believed an elite group of black Americans, which he called the Talented Tenth, should be responsible for helping to elevate the rest of the race, economically, politically, socially, and culturally. In order to prepare for its leadership role, this black elite (representing approximately 10 percent of the black population) would need solid training in the liberal arts. According to Du Bois, "Progress in human affairs is more often a pull than a push, a surging forward of the exceptional man, and the lifting of his duller brethren." With his elite credentials and his Ph.D., Du Bois was convinced that reform, to be effective, had to come from above. In a celebrated critique of Washington, Du Bois wondered in 1903 whether it was possible to achieve racial progress with a philosophy that allowed only a "meager chance" for the development of "exceptional men." The answer, he asserted, was an "emphatic No."

While there were points of overlap between the visions of Washington and Du Bois, their differences marked the civil rights movement early in the century. But this was an age in which highly educated, reform-minded experts were gaining increasing prestige, power, and authority throughout American society, and Du Bois's elite-centered approach to race reform came to dominate the campaign for racial justice.

Reflecting the ascendence of Du Bois, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909. Composed of blacks and whites in the early days, the NAACP was destined to become the organizational engine for race reform for the next fifty years. Well-educated, articulate spokespersons, committed to helping the downtrodden, would spearhead the movement for racial justice by working to challenge segregation, end occupational discrimination, and gain the right to vote. A new spirit of abolitionism had been born.

In addition to the emergence of an organized movement for race reform early in the century, a key development in the black experience at this time was the northward migration of large numbers of African Americans. This was the beginning of the so-called Great Migration, which saw hundreds of thousands of blacks leave the South for the North between 1910 and 1920. (Equally significant was the simultaneous black migration within the South, which saw rural blacks move into southern cities in record numbers, a development that in later years would have enormous implications for the civil rights movement.) While World War I accelerated the exodus, blacks started to move even before the guns sounded. Nature, too, played a role, as the boll weevil and flooding wreaked havoc on southern agriculture (especially cotton), which upset the always precarious economic balance of the black farmer.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...