After decades of promoting education as the first and most essential step toward black self-reliance and success in the larger American society, it appears that the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson is changing his tune. While visiting the Operation Black Vote headquarters in London, England, Rev. Jackson was asked what black fathers should do to protect their sons from the troubles that compel so many young black men to make poor choices leading to crime, violence and untimely death. This is the central point in his response:
When I was younger I would say I wanted my children to get educated so that they wouldn’t have to go through what I’ve gone through. I’ve changed that position now. I want them to get a good education so they can have more tools with which to fight. The fight will not stop. I want them to have more tools. I want black fathers to have more tools with which to fight.
It has been 78 years since black historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson, “the father of black history,” wrote his signature work, The Mis-Education of the Negro, in which he accused the American education system of his day of indoctrinating, rather than teaching, black children, and perpetuating their sense of dependency and inferiority in American society.
Today, Rev. Jackson is suggesting that education is just another tool in the arsenal of grievance, victimhood and protest that he and others of his ilk have employed on behalf of the black community in America for half a century, with decidedly mixed results. I believe, however, that Dr. Woodson would categorically reject Rev. Jackson’s suggested application of education, and accuse him of mis-educating black people in his own right.
A close examination of Dr. Woodson’s work reveals that he passionately believed in a proper education as the critical first step toward black ascendancy in America, having benefited himself from his pursuit of higher learning.
Dr. Woodson held two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree and was the second black person to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He was an admirer and contemporary of Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican immigrant who led a black nationalist movement in America and, like Woodson, advocated black self-reliance and self-respect.
Woodson believed that black people could and would succeed in America with the proper education, and he admired the West Indian blacks who migrated to the United States in the early 1900s because, according to his observations, they came here literate, seeking more education, and with “high individual worth,” to use Dr. John C. Walter’s words, considering themselves “to be the equal of any man.”
By 1930, West Indian immigrants comprised 40 percent of all black doctors in America despite being only 1.2 to 1.5 percent of the population. In 1938, foreign born blacks comprised only 17 percent of the overall black population of New York City, but made up a third of its professionals and one fourth of the skilled artisans.
Dr. Woodson believed the characteristics that led to such professional success could be instilled within the indigenous black population in America through a combination of a traditional education and the teaching of black history, highlighting the breadth and depth of black contributions to American society. His commitment to black history led to the establishment of Negro History Week, the precursor to today’s Black History Month, and the establishment of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), which still operates today.
Rev. Jackson once preached a similar message, but he has been radicalized by his association with leftist politics, and largely abandoned any message that would promote blacks taking their place alongside their fellow Americans as sovereign individuals and equal heirs in the free market.
Instead of promoting the principles of individual dignity, self-reliance, and industry that served millions of immigrants to America, including millions from Africa and the Caribbean who look like us but came seeking opportunity, he would rather see us in the streets, repudiating opportunity and engaged in political protest to extract tribute from an ostensibly recalcitrant nation.
Dr. Woodson did not object to political engagement for ascending blacks, but he stressed it wasn’t the primary path to success:
The New Negro in politics, moreover, must not be a politician. He must be a man. He must try to give the world something rather than extract something from it. The world, as he should see it, does not owe him anything, certainly not a political office; and he should not try solely to secure one, and thus waste valuable years which might be devoted to the development of something of an enduring value. If he goes into office, it should be as a sacrifice, because his valuable time is required elsewhere. If he is needed by his country in a civil position, he may respond to the call as a matter of duty, for his usefulness is otherwise assured. From such a Negro, then, we may expect sound advice, intelligent guidance, and constructive effort fort the good of all elements of our population.
While Dr. Woodson advocated an assertive approach to pursuing the rights of blacks as American citizens, he reflected the attitude of America’s founders toward politics, which they saw as a temporary, sacrificial service to the nation, and production, which they saw as the higher calling because it contributed to the betterment of the individual, the family and society as a whole. Booker T. Washington said, “No man who continues to add something to the material, intellectual, and moral well-being of the place in which he lives is long left without proper reward.”
Also, he rejected political philosophies that claimed to offer salvation to black people based on their perceived inability to be successful within the existing system. He was particularly unimpressed with the promises of socialism, which he saw as a tacit admission that blacks couldn’t compete in the free market:
In suggesting herein the rise of the New Negro in politics the author does not have in mind the so-called radical Negroes who have read and misunderstood Karl Marx and his disciples and would solve the political as well as the economic problems of the race by an immediate application of these principles. History shows that although large numbers of people have actually tried to realize such pleasant dreams, they have in the final analysis come back to a social program based on competition. If no one is to enjoy the fruits of his exceptional labor any more than the individual who is not prepared to render such extraordinary service, not one of a thousand will be sufficiently humanitarian to bestir himself to achieve much of importance, and force applied in this case to stimulate such action has always broken down. If the excited whites who are bringing to the Negroes such strange doctrines are insane enough to believe them, the Negroes themselves should learn to think before it is too late.
He refused to embrace those who wanted to dismantle the American system and replace it with something else, because he had seen it work for the West Indians and other immigrants, and he knew it could work for native-born blacks as well:
To say that the Negro cannot develop sufficiently in the business world to measure arms with present-day capitalists is to deny actual facts, refute history, and discredit the Negro as a capable competitor in the economic battle of life. No man knows what he can do until he tries. The Negro race has never tried to do very much for itself. The race has great possibilities. Properly awakened, the Negro can do the so-called impossible in the business world and thus help to govern rather than merely be governed.
In the failure to see this and the advocacy of the destruction of the whole economic order to right social wrong we see again the tendency of the Negro to look to some force from without to do for him what he must learn to do for himself.
While Rev. Jackson is saying, in effect, “We cannot compete in the world as it is, so we must fight against it,” as far back as the 1930s, Dr. Woodson was saying, “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.”
He didn’t believe that blacks in America had really yet had the opportunity to try and govern themselves. He had great faith in the strength and resilience of the black population, as did Frederick Douglass before him when he declared, “Do nothing with us!” to well-meaning but patronizing whites, as did Booker T. Washington when he said, “The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of his race,” and as did Marcus Garvey when he said, “You can succeed in big business just as you have succeeded along other lines of intellectual and mechanical endeavor, if you study business as you study the other subjects and trades and learn the detail necessary to success.”
That faith is characteristic of today’s black conservatives, who believe black people can govern themselves and find success in the world, and who do not subscribe to the notion that our fates are determined by people and institutions outside of our control, and we are powerless to do anything about it. If our history tells us anything, it’s that we have found great strength through adversity, and we are capable of far greater things because of the distance we have traveled and the obstacles we’ve overcome. We must not sacrifice that legacy on the altar of victimhood and resentment. If our power comes from outside of our locus of control, then it’s not truly ours.
There’s an old saying that goes, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” yet that is precisely what the black community has done since the days of Reconstruction. Not only do we depend on government assistance in numbers out of proportion to our presence in the population, we are disproportionately represented in public sector jobs, and are taking the hardest hits as government is forced to scale back dramatically in the face of record budget deficits. We need to invest more of our human and intellectual capital in the free market, where we own the means of production, the risk and the rewards.
That means pursuing education not as a means to agitation, but regeneration. Dr. Woodson’s passion for black American history is driven by our achievements, and it is indeed uplifting to realize the greatness of our ancestors despite the odds they faced, which were several orders of magnitude more burdensome than anything we encounter today.
Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave who learned to read and write and, without the benefit of a formal education, because one of the greatest writers, orators and statesmen in American history. Bridget “Biddie” Mason was 38 years old, illiterate and penniless when she won her emancipation in 1856, yet through hard work, frugality and wise financial decisions, she become one of the wealthiest people in Los Angeles, and one of California’s great philanthropists.
These and other great stories of black history were meant, in Dr. Woodson’s estimation, to build us up and give us “high individual worth.” Somehow, Black History Month has become more about what was done to us as victims than what we’ve done for ourselves and this nation as achievers and overcomers.
I’m reminded of the story shared with me by a white friend, who said her daughter came home after a class discussion during Black History Month and declared her pity for what was done to black people in America. While we should learn from the injustices of the past, the response Dr. Woodson sought in his advocacy of black history as an academic discipline was not pity, but pride.
As Frederick Douglass said, “What I ask for the Negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice.” In the same speech in which he uttered those words, he defined justice for the black community to mean “leave us alone”:
Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists, "What shall we do with the Negro?" I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature's plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! If you see him on his way to school, let him alone, don't disturb him! If you see him going to the dinner table at a hotel, let him go! If you see him going to the ballot- box, let him alone, don't disturb him! If you see him going into a work-shop, just let him alone,--your interference is doing him a positive injury.
Regrettably, like too many of our other possessions, our history has been co-opted and manipulated by those who see us as a source of power, but not necessarily its beneficiaries. Instead, we’ve been persuaded that our power lies solely in our ability to shame society rather than build it.
Dr. Woodson believed the remedy for such manipulation was political independence for the black community, declaring, “Any people who will vote the same way for three generations without thereby obtaining results ought to be ignored and disfranchised. As a minority element the Negro should not knock at the door of any particular political party.” As I indicated previously, his mistrust of “foreign movements” like socialism ran deep:
The Negroes have always had sufficient reason for being radical, and it looks silly to see them taking up the cause of others who pretend that they are interested in the Negro when they merely mean to use the race as a means to an end.
He also advocated political engagement not just for black causes, but for the overall advancement of society as a whole:
The New Negro in politics will see his opportunity not in thus restricting himself but in visioning the whole social and economic order with his race as a part of it. In thus working for the benefit of all as prompted by his liberal mindedness the New Negro will do much more to bring the elements together for common good than he will be able to do in prating only of the ills of his particular corner and extending his hand for a douceur.
Rev. Jackson’s comments, indeed his career as an activist, can be summed up in Dr. Woodson’s phrase, “…prating only of the ills of his particular corner and extending his hand for a douceur.”
His statement about education brings to mind the United Negro College Fund’s signature slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Let’s not waste our education on programs and actions designed to prolong grievance politics, and thus our stagnation within and isolation from society. That would be mis-education all over again.
Our history proves we are better than that, and even Rev. Jackson once believed it when he said, “Excellence is the best deterrent to racism. Therefore, be excellent.” Now there’s a proclamation that Dr. Woodson would embrace without reservation.