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A Vital Progressivism
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Page 1234

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Segregation And Lynchings

[picture of discussion group]

Miller: Waldo, there were a tremendous number of lynchings in the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. And these were unbelievable things. I mean, people were not just hanged. They were burned and roasted alive, in front of large crowds.

People would pack picnic lunches, and get on trains and go to see these harrowing spectacles. And no one wore sheets. It was all out in the open. This is the post-Klan era. What's going on here?

Martin: I think one of the ways to think about this is to understand that white supremacy during this period was sort of at its height. There's this scientific campaign to think about and represent black people as not only culturally inferior, but biologically inferior. To, in other words, separate them out from the larger body politic.

And when you get this sort of massive campaign to dehumanize and brutalize black people, this sort of horror of lynching is part of a whole strategy to create a view of black people that they are beasts. You have to lynch, because black men and black women are not like us, and if you want to bring them under control, you have to use these very, very horrific and violent and barbaric methods.

Miller: Yet people in the South, black people in the South, like Ida Wells -- she fought back.

Scharff: Ida Wells fought back with every weapon she had, and got burned out of her press for doing so in Memphis. But, what Ida Wells pointed out with her anti-lynching crusade was that very often, the people who were singled out for lynching were the people who were acting most human.

Miller: Here's Booker T. Washington. What's he saying about lynching?

[picture of Professor Martin]

Martin: I think there are two Booker T. Washingtons. There's the Booker T. Washington who is the public spokesperson, who was trying to bridge the relationships between whites and blacks. And that Booker T. Washington wants to mollify, he wants to soften white opposition to black progress. So he does not come out and vigorously condemn, he softly condemns.

He comes at it from a very, very political angle. He is not the thunderous opposition that you see with Ida B. Wells, or W. E. B. Du Bois, or some of the other, more aggressive kinds of leaders, because he figures he has to work behind the scenes with white power brokers, to try to get concessions for black people; so he's sort of a politician in that sense. But I think the private Booker T. Washington is horrified, and I think his letters, and a lot of his private interactions with close friends show that.

Scharff: Think how hard it is to be having to mute your horror, and having to establish that kind of doubleness that you just talked about, and how risky it was for Washington even to give the kind of opposition that he did, and to say, "All right, I'll take a little bit here, I'll try to get the concessions there." That takes a toll every single day.

Miller: Now, this is the Progressive Era. There are broad-gauged reforms, there's agitation all over the place. What are Roosevelt progressives and Wilson progressives -- what are they saying and doing about this issue?

Martin: I think most of them come off very poorly, and that's a generous...

Scharff: Wilson progressives are Southern progressives, for the most part, and Woodrow Wilson is the one who...

Miller: Wilson's record in the White House is horrendous, absolutely horrendous.

Scharff: ...segregates Washington, D.C.

Martin: I think there is, from the top down, sort of a mentality which is, for lack of a better term, really committed to a notion of white supremacy. There are all kinds of ways in which, as I suggested earlier, many people see this as the worst period, not only because of lynchings. There are race riots, there are whole...

Miller: That's the cruel irony of this. You know, you have this Progressive movement, with all this agitation going on, and it seems that under the surface, there's a subset of agitators, you know, who have to do it on their own.

Martin: And, when we highlight these moments of intense local community-based struggles, we have a lens onto the ordinary lived experience of most people. And from my view, this is an important way to think about American history. It's very much the struggles of ordinary people who are often marginalized -- because that says as much about America, and their relationship to America as an outsider. Because the only way you know who an American is, in some ways, is by who you exclude.

Miller: The big struggle here -- you know, the American Dream -- is not coming to America, it's making it in America, and how people make it against awful odds sometimes. Those are heroic stories.

Woman Suffrage

Scharff: Well, one of the amazing things that's happening during the Progressive Era is that these local struggles are beginning to be linked up, and they're beginning to be linked up by new systems of communication and transportation and also by new political organizing techniques -- so that you get someone like Carrie Chapman Catt, who invents this winning plan for woman's suffrage, which was absolutely unique, for the first time.

Miller: Explain who she is.

[picture of Professor Scharff]

Scharff: Carrie Chapman Catt, who became the president of the National American Women's Suffrage Association. She was an Illinois suffragist. She'd grown up in Iowa a relatively privileged woman. Somebody who, in order to campaign for suffrage, had it written into her marriage contract with her husband that she had to have a certain number of days every year that she'd be allowed to campaign for suffrage.

And, what she did was to organize the suffrage forces, local suffrage forces in each state, like a political machine. And so what they did, in some ways, was to use the kind of political organizing techniques that you find among your Roosevelt progressives and Wilson progressives, but to turn them to ends that I think probably Woodrow Wilson didn't anticipate, and when he was confronted with them, was very uncomfortable with.

[picture of Professor Miller]

Miller: I think most national progressive politicians were uncomfortable with street demonstrations. And this is really interesting because it's protest that involves risk taking. There's risk taking right across the board, huge risk taking, you know.

Washington was taking risks all the time. One step out of line and he's done. They'd shut down his operation.

Women were taking risks.

Margaret Sanger was taking risks in New York with her birth control clinics. Getting thrown into jail. And Waldo, you wrote about a guy, a beautiful book about a guy who was taking risks all his life, Frederick Douglass. Where is he at the end of the nineteenth century, just as these issues are starting to break?

Martin: Frederick Douglass dies in 1895. That's the very year that Booker T. Washington becomes the preeminent African American leader. He gives this speech in Atlanta, which elevates him to this mantle of national leadership. Whereas Frederick Douglass had been a very protest-oriented, aggressive leader, as I've suggested earlier, Booker T. Washington was more of a conciliator, more of a compromiser.

And I think there is this tension that existed among African American leaders at the turn of the century, among those like Booker T. Washington, as opposed to those like W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells, who offered a more aggressive posture which called back to the more... called back to the tradition that Frederick Douglass represented. But I think you're talking about risk-taking. The creation of the NAACP in 1909 brings together a whole series of white liberals and radicals who are very, very much taking a risk in terms of, you know, trying to come together with African Americans, to think about, "What can we do to try to alleviate some of the horrors of lynching, disfranchisement, and all of that?" And I think that kind of effort also needs to be recognized and understood.

Miller: Why aren't we hearing more about people like this?

Scharff: Oh my god!

(all three) (Laughing)

Martin: I think... you know, history is written by the victors. History is written by those who have a vision of America as sort of a progressive narrative, where you highlight the good and the sunny, where the underside, where the less-than-positive, where the bleaker aspects are seen as not necessary to sort of a mainstream narrative, and I think not only is that unbalanced, but it's untrue. And I think what we're trying to do as historians, on the cusp of the new millennium, is to try to think about ways to represent history that's more inclusive.

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