Racial reconciliation should be high on the agenda for American Christians. But the drive for reconciliation, like many other things, can be based on God’s wisdom or modern man’s.
That drive for reconciliation can emphasize the importance for all people of marriage, work, and worship. It can help us to identify each other not by the color of our skin but by the content of our belief. Or, it can lure those with guilt feelings to speak a form of cultural Ebonics by supporting programs of reverse racism and governmental aggrandizement.
Which way will we go? We learn what to do primarily from reading the Bible, but a study of history provides supportive detail. One man’s life and beliefs shows that centrality particularly well: Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). He was a role model for two generations of American blacks but is often ignored these days, since his Christian values are not considered politically correct within most university departments of African-American Studies. (The perspectives from such programs trickle down to elementary schools.)
Christians cannot afford to ignore Washington, because his teaching holds the key to true reconciliation. Let’s start with some biographical details first: Booker (no last name at first) was born into slavery in 1856 and freed when the Civil War ended, only to find himself at age 9 working in the salt mines of West Virginia. This side effect of liberty taught young Booker that abstract rights did not preserve him from a shift in the mines that began at 4 a.m. The climb up from slavery, whether legal or economic, required labor, integrity, faith, and thrift.
Providentially, family members helped. Just as many inner-city parents work extra shifts to pay tuition to a Christian school, so Booker’s mother and other poor parents hired a literate black ex-soldier to teach their children how to read. Washington, who eventually took the surname of his stepfather, studied as soon as he got off work each day, and he was ready in 1872 (with a little traveling money from his brother) to walk most of the way to Hampton Institute, a new high school for blacks 500 miles away in Hampton, Va.
Washington, arriving at the institute in clothes he had worn for weeks, received an unusual admissions test: The head teacher told the unlikely looking scholar to sweep and dust an adjoining classroom. He swept it three times, dusted every inch of wood in the room four times, and then—holding his breath—asked for an inspection. The teacher examined every corner, rubbed her handkerchief on the table and benches, found everything spotless, and said, “I guess you will do to enter this institution.”
Washington later remarked that those words made him “one of the happiest souls on earth. The sweeping of that room was my college examination, and never did any youth pass an examination for entrance into Harvard or Yale that gave him more genuine satisfaction.” He then worked his way through Hampton by doing janitorial work, and eventually became a teacher there.
After nine years of work and study, the 25-year-old Washington was ready to set out on his own in 1881, and he was invited to head a new school in Alabama, Tuskegee Institute. Visiting nearby families, he encountered one young black man who had been to high school and was sitting in greasy clothes amid garbage in his shack, studying a French grammar rather than working the fields. Washington’s initial program of study was different: He lined up the students and led them in a “chopping bee,” during which he and they cleared the undergrowth, trees, and shrubs off land that was then to be used for planting food crops.
Some of the students protested, arguing that they had come for an education so they would not have to do manual labor, “slave work.” But Washington swung his ax vigorously, both showing and telling that “there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.” Dignity, he taught, comes from glorifying God in whatever capacity he has placed us, then working to improve our circumstances.
How important is belief in God to racial progress? A 19th century incident at Boston’s Faneuil Hall put that question at the forefront. Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave recognized in the press as the paramount black leader until his death in 1895, was crying 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.”
Douglass then sat down, his case powerfully made. Then 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. If God lived, though, there was always hope—and Booker T. Washington 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 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.”
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.” 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 also 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.”
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, 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.
When my family and I visited a big black church in California a while ago, we saw one white man trying to achieve racial reconciliation by wearing his hair cornrowed, with long beaded braids. Over the years other methodologies have also been recommended to me; for example, have a “sharing” group in which folks would “let out” all their racial animosities and then say (as in those old Bud Light commercials), “I love you, man.”
Booker T. Washington would have laughed at such attempts, and then cried. As students during February’s Black History Month should be learning, there was too much to be done—creating schools, building businesses, worshiping God who is objectively present—to sit around talking about our feelings.
Washington first gained a national audience for his views by speaking at the opening of the International Cotton Exposition in Atlanta in September 1895, half a year after Frederick Douglass’ death. Before the speech he knelt down with particular fervency “and asked God’s blessing upon my effort.” Then he got up and argued that if blacks built strong families, gained solid job-oriented education, and founded enterprises, political advancement would come, but the reverse was not true. Washington followed such realism with an admonition: Do not emphasize gigantic national solutions to racial problems, but “cast down your bucket where you are … and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life.”
Journalists at both black and white newspapers were enthusiastic. One typical report noted that Washington’s speech “dwarfed all the other proceedings and the Exposition itself.” Why? Not because the ideas in the speech were original but because they unoriginally emphasized the common biblical heritage of both blacks and whites. They also turned away from interest-group politics, which increases racial animosity, and toward personal spiritual and economic development.
When Washington insisted that “brains, property, and character for the Negro will settle the question of civil rights,” radical critics such as William Monroe Trotter called him a traitor to his race for supposedly overlooking the role of white racism. To the contrary, Tuskegee’s founder was emphasizing the depth of racial hostility and explaining that legal changes would not dig out the cultural roots. The only way to do that was to rely upon “the slow but sure influences that proceed from the possession of property, intelligence, and high character.”
Blacks who listened to Washington saved money, bought farms, built strong families and businesses, and made economic progress. During his decade of maximum exhortation, 1900-1910, the total value of farm property owned by blacks increased by 177 percent, from $177 million to $493 million in the uninflated dollars of that time.
At the 1915 convention of the National Negro Business League, which Washington founded in 1900 and served as president, 700 delegates from 30 different states shared their experiences of entrepreneurial growth. White businessmen who preferred Washingtonian pleas for opportunity to Douglassite threats often provided start-up help.
Washington was able to say from experience, “With the exception of preaching the Gospel of Christ, there is no work that will contribute more largely to the elevation of the race in the South than a first-class business enterprise.”
Even though Washington developed strong ties with Theodore Roosevelt and other national leaders, he resisted the temptation to move to the nation’s capital. He concentrated on building up the Tuskegee Institute and other black schools, and on speaking across the country about the need for spiritual firmness and entrepreneurialism—until he collapsed in New York when he was a year short of 60.
Washington’s funeral in November 1915 included the usual funeral orations and pledges to carry out his vision—and, for a generation, “Booker and the Bible” were regularly taught. But, after a time, many black pastors ignored Booker T. Washington’s criticism of an unworldly pseudo-Christianity that ignored material needs.
Some black churches began emphasizing emotion, entertainment, and “pie in the sky when you die.” Meanwhile, some black leaders began emphasizing politics rather than business enterprise, and some white leaders, including ministers, played to racism.
Still, slowly, through the 1950s there was personal progress—marriage and employment rates among blacks were similar to those among whites in 1950—and some major public steps, such as the integration of the armed forces, major league baseball, and public schools during the 1940s and 1950s. Significantly, civil rights pioneers through the early 1960s won not by frightening whites but by gaining their respect. They won by standing on the shoulders of Booker T. Washington.
Today, African-American Studies departments at major universities blame slavery for social problems that exist in black communities—conveniently forgetting that, through the teaching of Booker T. Washington and others, those problems had been reduced tremendously by 1960.
For example, as economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out, each of the first five decennial censuses taken after Washington’s death—those from 1920 to 1960—showed that at least 60 percent of all black males at least 15 years old were married. Each 10 years the percentage of blacks who were married increased, as did the rate among whites. The difference between black and white rates of marriage was always less than 5 percent throughout that period.
If blacks from 1960 on had continued making social progress at the same rate as they had over the earlier decades of the century, black poverty by now would be unusual, and the economic despair that now dominates many urban communities would be rare. Sadly, as blacks jumped over legal and political barricades during the 1960s, some thought they could ignore Booker T. Washington’s wisdom.
By 1980, fewer than half of all black males age 15 and up were married, and the gap between white and black marriage rates had risen to 17 percent; by 1992 the gap was 21 percent. A new Pew study notes, “In 2011, 55% of white adults ages 18 and older were married, compared with 31% of black adults ages 18 and older. In 2011, 72% of births to black women were to unmarried mothers, compared with 29% of births to white women.” This is crucial because race makes less difference in income than family composition: Black, two-parent families are less likely to live in poverty than white, female-headed families.
Other statistics also show the importance of Booker T. Washington’s emphasis on marriage, family development, and education. As Sowell notes, as early as 1969 black males who came from homes where there were newspapers, magazines, and library cards had the same incomes as whites from similar homes and with the same number of years of schooling. By the 1980s, black husband-and-wife families where both were college educated and working earned slightly more than similar white families.
Many blacks, of course, have taken Washington’s advice, and they are doing well. But others who grew up in the God-is-dead 1960s (and their children) fell prey to a revolution in values. With less affluence to start with, blacks generally had less of a margin of error: Middle-class white kids could do drugs as a lark and then return to sobriety, but many poor black kids who fell behind never caught up.
Since the 1960s, of course, single parenting has increased throughout our society, but most dramatically among blacks. Public schools have gotten worse; that’s exactly what we would expect when God is ignored, discipline erodes, and a lack of competition protects old-line monopolies. Many black children grow up under horrendous circumstances, their bitterness fanned by those who, as in Washington’s time, politically and economically profit from tearing down rather than building up.
The positive lessons of Black History Month will take years to put into practice, but they are conceptually easy. Churches that teach the whole counsel of God concerning life both in this world and in the next are crucial. Access to better schooling, which for millions of children will require development of either private scholarship or public voucher programs, is essential. It is vital for good students to go to college and major there not in African-American Studies but in accounting or engineering or other fields of knowledge that help them to build businesses.
Today, as it was a century ago, Booker T. Washington’s recipe for progress can be encapsulated in 12 words: Build strong churches. Build strong families. Build strong schools. Build strong businesses.