This month is black history month, but most students will never hear of a dramatic incident that illuminated the late-19th-century debate among blacks concerning the best way to make progress.
The incident occurred at Boston's Faneuil Hall, when Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave recognized in the press as the paramount black leader until his death in 1895, cried out during a speech, "The Negro has no hope of justice from the whites, no possible hope save in his own right arm. It must come to blood. The Negroes must fight for themselves."
Mr. Douglass then sat down, his case powerfully made-but another ex-slave, Sojourner Truth, changed the framework of debate in that hall with one brief but powerful question: "Frederick, is God dead?" The question was key, because if God is dead then the likelihood of individual change, "one by one from the inside out" (as author Glenn Loury puts it) is minimal; all that remains are group identity, power politics, and eventual bloodshed.
Blood flowed among blacks before the Civil War when slaves who strove for freedom were whipped, and after the war as the Ku Klux Klan rode-but there was always hope, if God lived.
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) believed that God lived.
Here's what his daughter Portia remembered: "We never at home began the day without prayer, and we closed the day with prayer in the evening. He read the Bible to us each day at breakfast and prayed; that was never missed. Really he prayed all the time."
Religion was vital to Mr. Washington, but not just any kind. He regularly criticized churches that did not relate the Bible to the problems of this world as well as to the hopes of the next. He fought a two-front war: against atheism and its practical outworking of hopelessness, but also against "sentimental Christianity, which banks everything in the future and nothing in the present."
Mr. Washington startled some listeners by stating that "the bulk of our people are as much in need of Christian teaching as any people to be found in Africa or Japan." He joked about an old man who came to a church meeting and said, "I have had a bad time since I was here a week ago.... I have broken all the Commandments; but, thank the Lord, I haven't yet lost my religion." Mr. Washington sometimes despaired at the number of churches that emphasized faith without works and soon became dead.
What he wanted was tough-minded Christianity throughout the week: "Our religion must not alone be the concern of the emotions, but must be woven into the warp and woof of our everyday life." He spoke of how Christians should remember not only God's love but God's holiness, realizing that "if we would live happily, live honored and useful lives, modeled after our perfect leader, Christ, we must conform to law."
Mr. Washington even saw slavery as part of God's sovereign design to bring good out of evil: "We went into slavery in this country pagans; we came out Christians." He told an audience at Carnegie Hall that blacks at least derived from the sadness of slavery "the habit of work." He saw Christianity as the remedy for all social evils, asking and then answering the question, "What is the remedy for lynching? Christian education of the white man and the black man."
As Tuskegee's founder witnessed success among blacks who learned and put into practice biblical principles, a counter-tendency worried him. He wrote of those who "have gained the idea at some point in their career that, because they are Negroes, they are entitled to the special sympathy of the world, and they have thus got into the habit of relying on this sympathy rather than on their own efforts to make their way."
The road to racial progress, Mr. Washington insisted, was not by gaining sympathy for past enslavement, nor by ignoring life on earth and merely waiting for heaven. He told all who could listen that they could glorify God in this life "by putting business methods into your farming, by keeping your bodies and your surroundings clean, by staying in one place, by getting a good teacher and a good preacher, by building a good school and church, by letting your wife be partners in all you do, by keeping out of debt, by cultivating friendly relations with your neighbors both white and black."
As long as black religious and political leaders transmitted that vision-which is applicable to folks of all races-their people progressed. But as such wisdom has often been put aside in recent years, many have perished.