Kelly Miller, Radicals & Conservatives and Other Essays on the Negro in America, 1908


When a distinguished Russian was informed that some American Negroes are radical and some conservative, he could not restrain his laughter. The idea of conservative Negroes eras more than the Cossack's risibilities could endure. " What on earth," he exclaimed with astonishment, " have they to conserve? "

According to a strict use of terms, a " conservative " is one who is satisfied with existing conditions and advocates their continuance; while a " radical " clamors for amelioration of conditions through change. No thoughtful Negro is satisfied with the present status of his race, whether viewed in its political, its civil or general aspect. He labors under an unfriendly public opinion, one which is being rapidly crystallized into a rigid caste system and enacted into unrighteous law. How can he be expected to contemplate such oppressive conditions with satisfaction and composure? Circumstances render it imperative that his attitude should be dissentient rather than conformatory. Every consideration of enlightened self-respect impels him to unremitting protest, albeit the manner of protestation may be mild or pronounced, according to the dictates of prudence. Radical and conservative Negroes agree as to the end in view, but differ as to the most effective means of attaining it. The difference is not essentially one of principle or purpose, but point of view. All anti-slavery advocates desired the downfall of the iniquitous institution, but some were more violent than others in the expression of this desire. Disagreement as to method led to personal estrangement, impugnment of motive, and unseemly factional wrangle. And so, colored men who are alike zealous for the betterment of their race, lose half their strength in internal strife, because of variant methods of attack upon the citadel of prejudice. Mr. Booker T. Washington is, or has been, the storm-center about which the controversy rages, and contending forces have aligned themselves in hostile array as to the wisdom or folly of the doctrine of which he is the chief exponent. The unseemly "Boston Riot," in which he was threatened with bodily violence, served to accentuate the antagonism and to deepen the line of cleavage.

Several years ago a number of New England colored men, " exotica," as some would say, of the New England colleges, having grown restive under what they deemed the damaging doctrine of the famous Tuskegeean,. founded the Boston Guardian as a journal of protest. These men declared that the teachings of Mr. Washington were destructive of the guaranteed rights and privileges of the Negro race, especially in the Northern States, and pledged themselves to spare no effort to combat his political and social heresies.

Mr. William Monroe Trotter, a Harvard graduate, who in said to have maintained a higher scholastic average than any other colored student of that famous institution, was head and front of the new movement. As promoter of the " Boston Riot " he was convicted and sentenced to the common jail. His incarceration but served to intensify his animosity.

Mr. Trotter is well suited to play the role of a martyr. He delights in a reputation for vicarious heroics. Being possessed of considerable independent means, he willingly makes sacrifices for the cause, and is as uncompromising as William Lloyd Garrison. Mr. Trotter, however, lacks the moral sanity and poise of the great emancipator. With him agitation is not so much the outgrowth of an intellectual or moral comprehension of right and reprehension of wrong, as it is a temperamental necessity. Endowed with a narrow, intolerant intensity of spirit, he pursues his ends with a Jesuitical justification of untoward means. Without clear concrete objective, such as the anti-slavery promoters had in view, he strikes wildly at whatever or whoever he imagines obscures the rights of the Negro race. He has the traditional irreverence of the reformer, an irreverence which delights to shatter popular idols. President Eliot of Harvard University, Theodore Roosevelt, and Booker T. Washington are shining marks for his blunt and bitter denunciation. He sets himself up as the moral monitor of the Negro race. This Negro Puritan is of spotless and austere personal character, and yet he does not scruple to use the weapons of unrighteousness to promote his cherished hopes. He is equally indifferent to the allurements of culture and the blandishments of business; he has sacrificed a business career which was opening up with large prospects, in order to fight the Washington heresy. A Harvard graduate, with a class-standing that puts him easily in touch with the intellectual elite of his alma mater, he has thrown away all the restraints of culture, spurned the allurements of refined association, and conducts The Guardian with as little regard to literary form and style as if he were a back-woodsman.

By his blunt, persistent assault on Booker T. Washington he has focalized the more radical elements of the Negro race, and has made himself the most forceful personality that the Negroes in the free States have produced in a generation. He is irreconciled to his great foe. This intrepid editor saw clearly that the so-called radical Negroes were wholly wanting in organization and leadership. He chafed under the chide of having no concrete achievement or commanding personality as basis and background of his propaganda. His enemies sought to silence the loudsome pretensions of those of radical persuasion by the cry that they had founded no institutions and projected no practical projects. That the same might have been said of Garrison and Phillips was regarded as a barren rejoinder. It is difficult to found an effective organization on a protest. There is little constructive possibility in negation. Through the influence of The Guardian, Mr. Trotter has held together and inspirited the opposition to Mr. Washington. His every utterance leads to the Cato-like refrain: " Booker Washington must be destroyed." Conscious of his own lack of attractive personality and felicity of utterance requisite to ostensible popular leadership, Trotter began to cast about for a man of showy faculties who could stand before the people as leader of his cause. He wove a subtle net about W. E. B. DuBois, the brilliant writer and scholar, and gradually weaned him from his erstwhile friendship for Mr. Washington, so as to exploit his prominence and splendid powers in behalf of the hostile forces.

The author of the " Souls of Black Folk " is also a Harvard man, and possesses extraordinary scientific and literary talent. Few men now writing the English language can equal him in linguistic felicity. He is a man of remarkable amplitude and contrariety of qualities, an exact interrogator and a lucid espositor of social reality, but withal a dreamer with a fantasy of mind that verges on " the fine frenzy."

Dr. DuBois began his career, not as an agitator, nor as a carping critic of another's achievements, but as a painstaking investigator and a writer of remarkable lucidity and keenness. The men who are now extolling him as the peerless leader of the radicals were a few years ago denouncing him bitterly for his restrained and reasoned conclusions. It is almost impossible to conceive how the author of " The Philadelphia Negro " could have penned the " Second Niagara Movement Manifesto," without mental and moral metamorphosis. When DuBois essays the role of the agitator, and attempts to focus the varied energies of his mind upon a concrete social emergency, it is apt to result, as did his " Atlanta Tragedy," in an extravaganza of feeling and a fiasco of thought. His mind being cast in a weird and fantastic mold, his place is the cloister of the reflective scholar. He lives behind the veil; and whenever he emerges to mingle with the grosser affairs of life we may expect to hear, ever and anon, that sad and bitter wail. Dr. DuBois is passionately devoted to the welfare of his race, but he is allowing himself to be exploited in a function for which he is by nature unfit. His highest service will consist in interpreting to the white people the needs and feeling of his race in terms of exact knowledge and nice language, rather than as an agitator or promoter of concrete achievement. Trotter is the real guiding power of the " Niagara Movement," for he, almost by his single hand, created the growth that We need not feel surprised, therefore, that such picturesque points as Niagara Falls and Harper's Ferry figured in the " Niagara Movement," under the guiding mind of DuBois. They were planned by a poetic mind. It is a poet's attempt to dramatize the ills of a race with picturesque stage setting and spectacular scenic effect.

At the call of DuBois a number of men met at Niagara Falls, in August, 1905, and launched the " Niagara Movement " amid the torrential downpour of the mighty waters. In this gathering were some of the ablest and most earnest men of the Negro race. The call appealed mainly to those of vehement temperament, every one of whom was an avowed opponent of Booker T. Washington. An address was issued to the country setting forth in manly, pointed terms the rights of the colored race. The platform of the movement contained nothing new, and its dynamic was derived from dissent. It was merely a protest against American color discrimination, based upon Mr. Washington's alleged acquiescence. Many of the subscribers to the new movement had not, up to that time, been known for their activity in behalf of the race, and espoused the cause as " a cult " with all the wonted zeal and intolerance of new converts.

made it possible. Although we may hear the voice of Jacob, we feel the hand of Esau. DuBois ostensibly manages the new movement, but when he dares to deviate from the inflexible intentions of Trotter, there will be war within, and victory will rest with the intrepid editor.

The second manifesto of this body, issued from Harper's Ferry, the scene of John Brown's martyrdom, is scarcely distinguishable from a wild and frantic shriek. The lachrymal wail befits the child, which has "no language but a cry." Verbal vehemence void of practical power to enforce demands in an ineffectual missive to be hurled against the stronghold of prejudice.

Another meeting has been called at Oberlin, Ohio, because of its stirring anti-slavery suggestiveness. We may expect a future session at Appomattox, so prone is the poetic temperament to avail itself of episodal and dramatic situations.

When the " Niagara Movement " grows out of the declamatory stage and becomes tempered by dealing with the actualities of the situation it will find its place among the many agencies working together for the general cause.

The radical and conservative tendencies of the Negro race cannot be better described than by comparing, or rather contrasting, the two superlative colored men in whom we find their highest embodiment—Frederick Douglass and Booker Washington, who were both picked out and exploited by white men as the mouthpiece and intermediaries of the black race. The two men are in part products of their times, but are also natural antipodes. Douglass lived in the day of moral giants; Washington lives in the era of merchant princes. The contemporaries of Douglass emphasized the rights of man; those of Washington, his productive capacity. The age of Douglass acknowledged the sanction of the Golden Rule; that of Washington worships the Rule of Gold. The equality of men was constantly dinned into Douglass's ears; Washington hears nothing but the inferiority of the Negro and the dominance of the Saxon. Douglass could hardly receive a hearing today; Washington would have been hooted off the stage a generation ago. Thus all truly useful men must be, in a measure, time-servers; for unless they serve their time, they can scarcely serve at all. But great as was the diversity of formative influences that shaped these two great lives, there is no less opposability in their innate bias of character. Douglass was like a lion, bold and fearless; Washington is tomblike, meek and submissive. Douglass escaped from personal bondage, which his soul abhorred; but for Lincoln's proclamation, Washington would probably have arisen to esteem and favor in the eyes of his master as a good and faithful servant. Douglass insisted upon rights; Washington insists upon duty. Douglass held up to public scorn the sins of the white man; Washington portrays the faults of his own race. Douglass spoke what he thought the world should hear; Washington speaks only what he feels it is disposed to listen to. Douglass's conduct was actuated by principle; Washington's by prudence. Douglass had no limited, copyrighted programme for his race, but appealed to the Decalogue, the Golden Rule, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States; Washington, holding these great principles in the shadowy background, presents a practical expedient applicable to present needs. Douglass was a moralist, insisting upon the application of righteousness to public affairs; Washington is a practical opportunist, accepting the best terms which he thinks it possible to secure.

Booker T. Washington came upon the public stage at the time when the policies which Douglass embodied had seemed to fail. Reconstruction measures had proved abortive; Negro politicians, like Othello, had lost their occupation, and had sought asylum in the Government departments at Washington; the erstwhile advocates of the Negro's cause had grown indifferent or apologetic, and the plain intent of the Constitution had been overborne in the South with the connivance of the North. The idea of lifting the Negro to the plane of equality with the white race, once so fondly cherished, found few remaining advocates. Mr. Washington sized up the situation with the certainty and celerity of a genius. He based his policy upon the ruins of the policy that had been exploited. He avoided controverted issues, and moved, not along the line of least resistance, but of no resistance at all. He founded his creed upon construction rather than upon criticism. He urged his race to do the things possible rather than whine and pine over things prohibited. According to his philosophy, it is better to build even upon the shifting sands of expediency than not to build at all simply because you cannot secure a granite foundation. He thus hoped to utilize for the betterment of the Negro whatever residue of good feeling there might be in the white race. Tuskegee Institute, which is in itself a marvelous achievement, is only the pulpit from which Mr. Washington proclaims his doctrine. Industrial education has become so intricately interwoven into his policy that his critics are forced into the ridiculous attitude of opposing a form of training essential to the welfare of any people. For reasons of policy, Mr. Washington has been provokingly silent as to the claim of higher education, although his personal actions proclaim loudly enough the belief that is in his heart. The subject of industrial and higher education is merely one of ratio and proportion, and not one of fundamental controversy.

Mr. Washington's bitterest opponents cannot gainsay his sincerity or doubt that the welfare of his race is the chief burden of his soul. He follows the leading of his own light. Few men of this generation have shown such signal devotion, self-abnegation and strenuous endeavor for an altruistic cause.

One of the chief complaints against the Tuskegeean is lack of definite statement upon questions of vital concern. Mr. Washington is a diplomat, and a great one. He sinks into sphinxlike silence when the demands of the situation seem to require emphatic utterance. His carefully studied deliverances upon disputed issues often possess the equivocalness of a Delphic oracle. While he does not openly avow, yet he would not disclaim, in distinct terms, a single plank in the platform of Douglass. The white race saddles its own notions and feelings upon him, and yet he opens not his mouth. His sagacious silence and shrewdly measured assertions must be taken, if not with the traditional grain of salt, at least with a goodly lump of diplomatic allowance. We do not usually associate deep moral conviction with the guileful arts of diplomacy, but eve must remember that the delicate role of race statesmanship cannot be played without rare caution and tactful prudence.

Mr. Washington's popularity and prominence depend largely upon the fact that his putative policy is acceptable to the Southern whites, because he allows them to believe that he accepts their estimate of the Negro's inferior place in the social scheme. He is quiescent, if not acquiescent, as to the white man's superior claims. He shuts his eyes to many of the wrongs and outrages heaped upon the Negro race. He never runs against the Southerner's traditional prejudices, and even when he protests against his practices the protestation is so palliatory that, like a good conscience, it is void of offense.. Equality between the races, whether social, political, or civil, is an unsavory term to the white man's palate, and, therefore, Mr. Washington obliterates it from his vocabulary. The higher education of the Negro is in general disfavor, so Mr. Washington gives the approval of his silence to the charge that such pure and devoted philanthropists as President Ware of Atlanta, Patton of Howard, Tupper of Shaw, and Cravath of Fisk, who did more than all others to quicken and inspire the Negro race, have lived, loved, labored, and died in vain. Nor is Washington objectionable to the white man by reason of his self-assertive personality. He is an exact modern counterpart of Chaucer's knight: " Curteys he was, lowly, and servysable." Even when he violates the sacred code of the whites by dining with the President or mingling on easy terms with ultra-fashionable circles, they lash themselves into momentary fury, but straightaway proceed to laud and glorify his policy. The North applauds and sustains his propagandism because he strives to be at peace with all men. He appeals to the amity and not the enmity of both races. We are in the midst of an era of good feeling, and must have peace at any price. It is interesting to witness how many of the erstwhile loud-voiced advocates of the Negro's rights have seized upon Mr. Washington’s pacific policy as a graceful recession from the former position. The whites have set up Booker Washington as in a former day they set up Frederick Douglass, as the divinely appointed and anointed leader of his race, and regard as sacrilege all criticism and even candid discussion on the part of those whom he has been sent to guide. They demand for him an exemption which they have never accorded their own leaders, from George Washington to Theodore Roosevelt. Nothing could be further from Mr. Washington's thoughts than the assumption of divine commission which the whites seek to impose upon him. He makes no claim to have re ceived a revelation, either from burning bush or mountain top. He is a simple, sincere, unsophisticated colaborer with his brethren; a single, though signal, agency for the betterment of his race.

Mr. Washington did not start out as a leader of his people's own choosimg; he did not command an enthusiastic and spontaneous following. He lacks that magnetic personality that would cause men to love him and women to adore him. His method is rather that of a missionary seeking the material and moral betterment of an unfortunate people, than of a spontaneous leader voicing their highest self-expression. He is deficient in the fearlessness, the self-assertion, the aggressive and heroic spirit necessary to quicken and inspire. Such a leader must not hold up for painful contemplation or emphasize to the outside world the repugnant, grotesque and ludicrous faults and foibles of his own people, but he must constantly direct their attention to higher and better ideals. His dominant note must be pitched in the major key. He must not be of the earth earthy, with range of vision limited to the ugliness of untoward conditions, but must have the power of idealization and spiritual vista. Exaggerated self-importance is deemed an individual fault, but a racial virtue. It has been the chief incentive of every race or nation that has ever gained prominence in the world's affairs. The triumphant, God-sent leader of any people must be the exponent and expounder of their highest aspirations and feelings, and must evoke their manhood and self-esteem, yea, even their vanity and pride.

Mr. Washington's following was at first very largely prudential and constrained; it lacked spontaneousness and joyance. He was not hailed with glad acclaim as the deliverer of his people. He brought good gifts rather than glad tidings. Many believed in him for his work's sake; some acquiesced rather than antagonize one who had gained so large a measure of public confidence; others were willing to co-operate in the accomplishment of good deeds, though they inwardly detested his doctrine; while those of political instinct sought his favor as a pass-key to prestige and place. Few thoughtful colored men espoused what passed as Mr. Washington's " policy " without apology or reserve. Many of the more dispassionate and thoughtful are disposed to yield to his primacy because he has such a hold on the sentiment and imagination of the white race that, if for any reason the spell should be broken, no other colored man could ever hope for like consideration and esteem.

Mr. Washington's critics assert that his leadership has been barren of good results to the Negro race, unmindful of the magnitude of the contract he has promised the American people that he would solve the race problem. Under his regnancy it is claimed that the advantage of political power has been swept away. Civil privileges have been restricted, educational opportunities, in some States at least, have been curtailed; the industrial situation, the keystone of his policy, has become more ominous and uncertain, while the feeling between the races is constantly growing more acute and threatening. In answer to this it is averred that no human power could stay the wave of race hatred now sweeping over the country, but that the Tuskegeean's pacific policy will serve to relieve the severity of the blow. All of the leaders before him essayed the task in vain, and gave up in despair.

The majority of thoughtful men range between these wide-apart views, appreciating the good and the limitations of both. They believe in neither surrender nor revolution, and that both forces have their place and function in the solution of the race problem. They are joint factors of a common product, whose relative strength and importance may increase or diminish with the shifting exigencies of conditions. While it would be unseemly for those who breathe the free air of New England to remain silent concerning the heavy burden borne by their brethren in the South, yet we must not forget that Frederick Douglass himself could not to-day build up an institution in Alabama, nor do the imperative constructive work in that. The progress of all peoples is marked by alternations of combat and contention on the one hand, and compromise and concession on the other, and progress is the result, of the play and counterplay of these forces. Colored men should have a larger tolerance for the widest latitude of opinion and method. Too frequently what passes as " an impressible conflict " is merely difference in point of view.

The Negro's lot would be sad indeed if, under allurement of material advantage and temporary easement, he should sink into pliant yieldance to unrighteous oppression; but it would be sadder still if intemperate insistence should engender ill will and strife, when the race is not yet ready to be " battered with the shocks of doom." The words of Guizot never found a more pertinent application than to the present circumstances and situation of the Negro race:

"We continually oscillate between an inclination to complain without sufficient cause and to be too easily satisfied. We have extreme susceptibility of mind, an inordinate craving, and ambition in our thoughts, in our desires, and in the movements of our imagination; yet when we come to practical life, when trouble, when sacrifices, when efforts are required for the attainment of our object, we sink into lassitude and inactivity. Let us not, however, suffer ourselves to be invaded by either of these vices. Let us estimate fairly what our abilities, our knowledge, our power enable us to do lawfully, and let us aim at nothing that we cannot lawfully, justly and prudently – with a proper respect for the great principles upon which our social system, our civilization, is based – attain."

Mr. Booker T. Washington's later career is exemplifying more and more the philosophy of this sentiment.

Under the spur of adverse criticism and the growing sense of responsibility which his expanding opportunities impose, Mr. Washington has become so enlarged that his leadership is universally conceded, and well-nigh universally accepted. Few men have shown such power of enlargement. Even those who continue to challenge his primacy confess that they are opposing the Washington of long ago rather than the Washington of to-day. He rises triumphantly on stepping-stones of his dead self to higher things. He began his career with a narrow educational bias and a one-sided championship of industrial training, as offset to the claims of literary culture which had hitherto absorbed the substance of Northern philanthropy. But he has grown so far in grasp and in breadth of view that he advocates all modes of education in their proper place and proportion. He at first deprecated the Negro's active participation in politics, but with broadening vision and increasing courage he now serves as consulting statesman touching all political interests of the race.

Washington’s equability of temper is most remarkable. He receives a bequest of a million dollars, dines with the President, listens to the adulation of half the world or the bitter abuse of those whom he strives to serve, with the same modest and unruffled demeanor. His sanity and poise are unsurpassed. In a toast at a banquet given in honor of Mr. Washington in the city of Washington, the present writer proclaimed his conditional leadership, which the Negro race is now accepting with lessening reserve:

" We have as our guest to-night one who has come up from slavery, up from the coal caverns of West Virginia, struggling up against narrow theories, lack of early education and bias of environment, tactfully expanding the prudential restraints of a delicate and critical situation, rising upon successive steppingstones of past achievements and past mistakes, but ever planting his feet upon higher and higher ground. Sir, you enjoy a degree of concrete achievement and personal distinction excelled by few men now living on this planet. You are not only the foremost man of the Negro race, but one of the foremost men of all the world. We did not give you that ' glad eminence ' and we cannot take it away, but we would utilize and appropriate it to the good of the race. You have the attention of the white world; you hold the pass-key to the heart of the great white race. Your commanding position, your personal prestige, and the magic influence of your illustrious name entail upon you the responsibility to become the leader of the people, to stand as daysman between us and the great white God, and lay a propitiating hand upon us both. Some have criticised in the past, and reserve the right to do so in the future. A noble soul is big enough to invite candid criticism, and eschew sycophantic adulation.

" Sir, if you will stand upon the granite pedestal of truth and righteousness, and pursue policies that are commensurate with the entire circle of our needs, and which are broad-based upon the people's will, and advocate the fullest opportunity of Negro youth to expand and exploit their faculties, if you will stand as the fearless champion of the Negro’s political rights before the law and behind the law, then a united race will rise up and join in gladsome chorus:

"Only thou our leader be,

And we still will follow thee."