Meet the ‘Founding Fathers’ of Civil Rights

The campaigns for civil rights that began in 1954 and led to the legislative victories of the 1960s produced two images of leadership. Martin Luther King Jr advocated the assertion of equal rights in law, voting and education for black Americans. Malcolm X saw the struggle for black American rights as a global one, and advocated separatism, the creation of a separate black economy and sovereignty.

Both of these strategies had roots in 19th- and early 20th-century history, in the rivalry between William Edward Burghardt (WEB) du Bois and Marcus Garvey. The Northern states won the Civil War but the end of slavery did not lead to the end of discrimination. In the Southern states, ‘Jim Crow’ laws segregated blacks from whites. In the Northern states, including the cities to which Southern blacks migrated in search of jobs and equality, discrimination continued through informal racism.

Du Bois was born in 1868 to a family who had been ‘free blacks’ during the era of slavery. He grew up in the farming town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and attended a racially mixed school. When he left, he was granted the honour of delivering the valedictorian, or farewell, speech on behalf of his entire grade. Du Bois then moved south to attend the predominantly black Fisk University in Tennessee.

There, he began to see the extent of the Jim Crow laws, and the open racism and violence that accompanied them. The experience shocked him, and he returned to Massachusetts to devote himself to the struggle for equal rights. In 1895, Du Bois became the first black man to obtain a PhD from Harvard. His dissertation, on ‘The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870’, was one of the first works on the subject. By the turn of the century, he had returned to the South as a professor at Atlanta University in Georgia.

He had established himself as a rising black intellectual, which brought him into conflict with another eminent American black thinker of the time, Booker T Washington. Washington had been born a slave in the mid-1850s, and worked in a salt mine and as a domestic servant before obtaining an education at the Hampton Institute, one of the first all-black schools in the United States. As the leader of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, an all-black vocational school, Washington had practised his belief that Southern blacks, like Southern whites, needed agricultural and technical training if they were to survive in the industrial economy.

Washington believed that if blacks could obtain economic independence and demonstrate their practical value to their white neighbours, then the Southern whites would grant them civil equality. Washington’s strategy was dubbed by WEB Du Bois as the ‘Atlanta Compromise’, after the Georgia capital where Washington had announced it in 1895. Washington’s numerous white supporters, among them many Southern politicians and President Theodore Roosevelt, praised this strategy as restrained and patriotic.

His critics, Du Bois included, claimed that this policy accommodated to an unacceptable system. Washington, they said, deferred the difficult and necessary political campaign for civil rights to an unspecified future. The 1899 lynching of Sam Hose in Georgia by a mob of up to 2,000 whites reconfirmed Du Bois’ conviction that urgent action was required. Hose was tortured, hanged and then burned.

Du Bois, walking to a meeting with a sympathetic newspaper editor, saw Hose’s scorched knuckles on display in an Atlanta shop window. He turned around and cancelled his meeting in shock and horror. In 1903, Du Bois published the essay collection The Souls of Black Folk – a watershed in African-American literature, and a repudiation of Washington’s accommodationist strategy. “The Problem of the 20th century is the color line,” Du Bois wrote, “the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”

All blacks, but especially Southern blacks, needed both legal equality and the social equality that came from education. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise was a strategy for ‘conciliation’. It would continue “the old attitude of adjustment and submission”, and regardless of whether it persuaded Southern whites to grant legal equality, it would create a new subjection, this time purely economic.

Drawing on his experience at Harvard and Atlanta, Du Bois advocated the training of a black elite, a ‘Talented Tenth’ who could pursue “the loftiest of ideals” and strive for “culture and character” rather than economic subsistence. In the Southern states, he said, blacks and whites were segregated, and the police and the judicial system functioned as “a means of re-enslaving the blacks”.

If blacks were to obtain equality in law and opportunity, they must cultivate their own educational, political and spiritual resources. In 1905, Du Bois and several other young African-American campaigners founded the Niagara Movement, built on principles explicitly rejected the Atlanta Compromise. Events vindicated Du Bois’ criticism of Washington’s approach.

In 1906, President Roosevelt dishonourably discharged 167 black soldiers in response to the Brownsville Affair, in which the white residents of Brownsville, Texas, had rioted against the presence of black soldiers. Soon afterwards, between 25 and 40 black Americans were murdered by white mobs in Atlanta. The Compromise, Du Bois wrote, in ‘A Litany at Atlanta’, was over.

The consensus among black activists now swung towards campaigning for equal rights, free votes and educational opportunity. In 1910, Du Bois moved to New York and began working as the director of publicity and research for the organisation that would lead the next phase of the campaign – the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In this office, he led campaigns against lynchings, the segregation of the US Army and DW Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth Of A Nation, which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as patriotic defenders of American values. Du Bois had always seen the ‘colour line’ as a global problem. In The Souls of Black Folk, he had analysed the “double consciousness” of American blacks as a harmful psychological split between black and American identities.

Healing this division required not just equality in American law and society, but also the strengthening of links with other nonwhite populations – and the embracing of anti-imperial and socialist politics. As early as 1900, he had attended a Pan-African conference, organised in London by Haitian and Trinidadian campaigners. In 1919, while in Paris gathering information on discrimination in the US Army, Du Bois attended the inaugural Pan-African Congress.

In the early years of the 20th century, Du Bois had outflanked the older Booker T Washington, by advocating immediate legal equality rather than economic integration and accommodation to the existing order. Now, Du Bois found himself accused of not being radical enough. His new, and younger, rival was Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born proponent of black separatism, who led the ‘Back to Africa’ movement. Ironically, Booker T Washington’s vision of black economic independence was one of the inspirations of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which Garvey founded in 1914.

Two years later, Garvey was in America, soliciting funds for a Jamaican technical institute in the style of Washington’s own Tuskegee Institute. Yet Garvey shared none of Washington’s accommodationist politics. Nor, though he shared Du Bois’ conviction that the problems of black Americans were also global ones, did he share Du Bois’ hopes that the equalities of law and socialism would cure racist attitudes among whites. In the 1920s, the UNIA claimed to have 6 million members.

Garvey had survived an assassination attempt and launched a programme to modernise the infrastructure of Liberia, the West African state established by ex-American slaves, and which Garvey wanted to turn into a model black state. He had also created the Black Star Line, a shipping line intended to help build up economic links between Africa and the rest of the world, and to export skilled and committed American blacks to Liberia. Du Bois, whose NAACP magazine The Crisis was the biggest black publication in America, praised the spirit of the Black Star Line but called Garvey “the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and the world”.

The FBI agreed and prosecuted Garvey for using an image of a ship not owned by the Black Star Line on a brochure soliciting funds for it. In 1922, Garvey was sentenced to five years in prison and the Black Star Line went under. In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge ordered his deportation to Jamaica. Garvey would eventually die in London 13 years later in 1940. Meanwhile, Du Bois rose to ever-greater eminence.

He enthused about the flourishing of the arts among the growing black population in New York City – the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ – and moved between the university and left-wing politics. While his strategies for civil rights in America became the mainstream ideas of the 1960s movement, his international perspective and his political views remained subjects of controversy. He died in Ghana in 1963, aged 95. Du Bois was more socialist and pan-African in his politics than Martin Luther King Jr – and less Christian, too. Malcolm X shared much of Garvey’s separatism and back-to-Africa philosophy. But regardless, King and Malcolm X, the universalist and the particularist, marched in the lineage of Du Bois and Garvey.