Respectability Politics, Booker T. Washington, and the Black Social Gospel

The neglect of the black social gospel tradition erased nearly all the founders from memory, reproducing the very dismissal that they fought against constantly
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Black Lives Matter brilliantly chose a name that immediately conveys what needs to be said--that in much of white America, black lives have never mattered. The movement has also renewed a debate about something equally old that was named two decades ago, "the politics of respectability." This idea, contrary to its connotation, has a rich history in the very traditions of black church prophecy that protested for racial justice.

The name comes from historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham's seminal book of 1993, Righteous Discontent, which described the founding and early history of the women's movement in the National Baptist Convention. Higginbotham was both admiring and critical, for the Woman's Convention was brave, creative, tough-minded, and sometimes militant, it supported Booker T. Washington during his heyday, and it was suffused with a churchy moralistic emphasis on being respectable.

The idea goes back to early black church preaching and to the stump speeches of Booker Washington and Frederick Douglass--the two towering black American public figures of the nineteenth century. Washington and Douglass had inspiring up-from-slavery autobiographies, very large audiences crossing racial lines, and contrasting legacies in black politics. They also had nearly the same stump talk, which they delivered year after year. The Douglass version was titled "Self-Made Men" and was long on exclamatory exhortation. The Washington version was lower-keyed and geared to a different political conclusion--that Douglass-style protest did not work.

Both figures expounded on the hallmark of the age, progress through self-development: Do your best to earn respect, which can only be earned. Work hard and be good, and good will come to you. Learn a trade or a profession. Go to church and follow Jesus. Douglass and Washington tirelessly preached that black Americans would never win self-respect, their rights, or the respect of whites until they became economically successful. Douglass said it with customary zeal: "We may explain success mainly by one word and that word is WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!!"

Though Douglass and the early W. E. B. Du Bois fervently espoused respectability politics, memory hung this theme on Washington and the black church. Douglass and Du Bois were prized for protesting for justice, while the black church had a mixed legacy and Washington went down as the sell-out accommodator. But historically, protest militancy and respectability politics went together, and even Washington was not as accommodating as he pretended.
In 1895, when Douglass died, Washington soared to national fame by cutting a deal with white commercial society in the South. If the capitalist class allowed black Americans into the "New South" economy, blacks would swallow Jim Crow and the loss of their rights, at least for a season.

Booker Washington was complex, wily, and awesomely accomplished at a time when the constraints on what most black Americans were allowed to accomplish were horrendous. In the face of KKK terrorism, an upsurge of lynching, a Southern civil religion of "Lost Cause" propaganda, and a suffocating plague of disenfranchisement and Jim Crow abuse, Washington built a powerhouse institution in Alabama, Tuskegee Institute. He cultivated an image of simple altruism while fighting in a savvy, calculated fashion for as much power as he could get, fulfilling the American fantasy of ascending from poverty and disadvantage to greatness.
Washington accommodated disenfranchisement and segregation while secretly organizing legal efforts to thwart both. He denied that he made federal patronage appointments for blacks long after he routinely made all of them. He attracted wealthy benefactors, advised four U.S. presidents, launched hundreds of community schools, and amassed a powerful political machine.

Washington keenly understood that most white Southerners did not want black Americans to succeed at anything besides picking cotton. Any black success at anything else raised the frightening specter of "Negro rule." A black postmaster, shopkeeper, teacher, or lawyer represented Negro rule. But to give African Americans a glimmer of opportunity in a brutally hostile context, Washington pretended not to know it. He got to be Number One by bartering for a season of economic opportunity for persecuted blacks. But everything got worse for African Americans during this ostensible season, setting up Washington for the devastating objection that black Americans had not appointed him to be Number One. For the "race problem" in America was white racism and racial terrorism, which escalated dramatically on Washington's watch.

Washington so perfectly symbolized the respectability tradition that he continued to be revered across the color line long after he lost the ideological argument (in approximately 1908) and died (in 1915). Epitomizing respectability and a certain kind of success trumped the fact that he failed spectacularly. It was only after the Black Power movement retired the word "Negro" in the mid-1960s that Washington lost his taken-for-granted iconic standing in American history. In his time, Washington was a pillar of the white social gospel movement and the dominant figure in the black social gospel. He owed much of his fame to Lyman Abbott and other white leaders in the right-assimilation wing of the social gospel. Abbott serialized Washington's memoir Up From Slavery to his vast audience in Outlook magazine and published articles lauding Washington as the embodiment of the social gospel ideal.

Three schools of black social gospel thought emerged to challenge the school of Washington. Nationalists said that blacks needed their own country, or failing that, a black civilization, because white America was hopelessly hostile to black Americans. Episcopal intellectual Alexander Crummell and Methodist bishop Henry McNeal Turner were prominent social gospel nationalists. Justice-oriented protesters countered that blacks had to fight for their rights, eventually in alliances with white liberals. Methodist bishops Reverdy Ransom and Richard R. Wright Jr. were prominent in this school, allied with Du Bois. Trimmers tried to have it both ways on protest and accommodation, taking a middling position on Washington versus Du Bois. Prominent figures in this school included Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and Baptist educator Nannie Burroughs--the central figure in Higginbotham's narrative.

A full-fledged, progressive black social gospel tradition emerged from the clash of the four schools over Washington versus Du Bois, coming mostly from the Ransom and Du Bois group. It combined social justice politics, racial justice activism, and progressive theology. It preached a version of respectability politics that condemned the evils of white oppression. The second generation of black social gospel leaders--Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin E. Mays, George Kelsey, J. Pius Barbour, Vernon Johns, and Howard Thurman--fought bruising battles to legitimize social gospel theology in the churches and provided role models for Martin Luther King, Jr. Their legacy is immense, notwithstanding that the black social gospel has never gotten its due recognition.

The neglect of the black social gospel tradition erased nearly all the founders from memory, reproducing the very dismissal that they fought against constantly. All were told repeatedly that churches were hopelessly conservative, insular, and obsessed with respectability. Churches would never embrace activist politics or modern intellectualism, and if one cared about these things, better get out of the church.

Nearly every black social gospel leader spent his or her career battling against that verdict. Ransom's clerical colleagues drove him out of Chicago and Boston for advocating social gospel theology and politics. Mays and historian Carter Woodson documented the deep divide in black churches over this issue. King's denomination bitterly opposed the civil rights movement and him.

The prophets of the black social gospel had their own blinders while waging this fight. Nearly all of them were male ministers; they did not stand up for the rights or agency of women (Ransom and Baptist minister William Simmons were notable exceptions); and they preached against gay and lesbian sexuality. The black social gospel was (and is) undeniably bound up with respectability politics, just as it is inextricable from the legacies of Ransom, Du Bois, and even Booker Washington. But there would have been no civil rights movement without it.

Gary Dorrien is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University. His book Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealistic Logic of Modern Theology, won the PROSE Award from the Association of American Publishers for the best book of 2012 in Theology and Religious Studies. His new book, The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel, published in October 2015 by Yale University Press, is the first of two books on the black social gospel tradition.

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