Archive for the ‘black leaders’ Category

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was a black American leader, teacher, speaker and writer. He founded the Tuskegee Institute in 1881, which was his life’s work. He became the most famous and powerful black man in the country. He spoke on race relations and had the ear of President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1901 Roosevelt invited him to dinner at the White House, the first black American so invited. He wrote about his life in “Up From Slavery” (1901).

Washington did not openly push for equal rights, like the right to vote, he did not push for an end to Jim Crow. He said blacks must first pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Education, hard work, saving money and patience were the way. Rocking the boat will help no one. White people both North and South agreed!

But W.E.B. Du Bois did not agree. He and others founded the NAACP to fight for equal rights by challenging racism through the courts. In time it led to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the huge growth of black middle-class that followed.

Washington, in his defence, wanted to help people in the here and now. The best way he could do that was to start a school – Tuskegee – that would produce black teachers, tradesmen and farmers. He also raised millions for black education – for Tuskegee, Fisk, Howard and Hampton. None of this would have been possible if he openly opposed white power.

Washington, as it turns out, was for equal rights too – in private. We know that because he secretly gave money to help fight for them in court. From his private letters we know he was putting on something of a front for whites.

Washington started life as, yes, a house Negro. His mother, like him, was a slave in Virginia. She was a cook. He helped her out, learning the ways of white people. His father was some unknown white man.

The summer he was nine the slaves were freed. Soon after his family moved to West Virginia where his stepfather found work in the salt furnaces and coal mines.

More than anything he wanted to learn to read. His mother could not read but bought him spelling books. Although he worked full-time he still got as much education as he could – even if it was just two hours at night

At 16 he left home to go to Virginia to become a schoolteacher. He went to Hampton, which was founded after Emancipation to produce black schoolteachers.

At 19 Washington came back home to teach, but soon was asked back to Hampton to teach there. They loved him. The state of Alabama wanted a school just like Hampton and so at age 25 Hampton sent him to Alabama to start it. The state did not give him much money, but slowly he made it into one of the best black schools in the land – Tuskegee.

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malcolmx04Malcolm X (1925-1965) was one of two main black leaders in America in the 1960s, the other being Martin Luther King, Jr. They were both ministers, King a Christian, X a Muslim, and they both wanted equal rights for blacks, but they disagreed about how it could be achieved: King said it could be done through peaceful protest, Malcolm X said, “Give me a .45 calibre, then I’ll sing ‘We Shall Overcome'”.

Some words and catchphrases that either started with Malcolm X or came to mainstream American society through him:

  • the ballot or the bullet: the two ways to achieve power.
  • white devils: whites as having an inborn evil nature unlike blacks.
  • black power: the only way blacks can control their own destiny.
  • by any means necessary: blacks must defend themselves with violence if necessary.
  • chickens coming home to roost: why John Kennedy got shot.

For most of his life Malcolm X thought that blacks would never get a fair deal from white society, certainly not so long as they remained poor and powerless. They needed their own businesses, their own way of thinking, their own men with guns and, in the end, their own nation.

Blacks should separate from whites: whites cannot be trusted, whites will not give up power willingly. The way whites think suits them, not blacks. Trying to be white or act white or become a part of white society was not the answer – that was a game where only whites could win.

Much of this thinking he got from his father, a poor country preacher who spread the message of Marcus Garvey. Garvey wanted to build a black society in America independent of white society and then return to Africa.

Malcolm’s father was killed by white men who did not like what he was telling black people. Later his mother had a breakdown and was sent away.

He turned to a life of crime and wound up in prison. There he discovered the Nation of Islam, the black Muslims. It gave his life purpose and direction. It made him proud to be black. He stopped straightening his hair, something black men did back in those days (think James Brown or Al Sharpton). He started reading seriously.

Later, after he got out of prison, he became one of the top ministers of the Nation of Islam. It grew from 500 followers to 30,000. His mosque was at 116th and Lenox in Harlem. It stands there still with its green dome.

Despite his loyalty to Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam, they had a falling out. He left and started his own mosques.

Then he went to Mecca.

And there for the first time in his life he saw black men and brown men and white men living together as brothers, as one. It blew his mind. He now knew that all the racism he had lived under in America all his life did not have to be.

But not long after he was shot dead. At age 39.

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