In February of 1895, Frederick Douglass -- then the nation's premier black leader -- collapsed at his home in Washington, D.C., and died. Some seven months later, an obscure black educator named Booker T. Washington gave a speech in Atlanta that catapulted him into the leadership void left by Douglass' sudden demise.
This year marks the centennial observance of Douglass' death and Washington's famous "Atlanta Compromise" speech. In the latter part of November, Lisa Monroe, the coordinator of the Enoch Pratt Free Library's "Booktalk" program, sponsored a panel discussion on the contributions of both men. Proving there is merit to the adage that "there is no accounting for taste," Ms. Monroe invited me to be one of five panelists.
When the moderator asked the panelists what Douglass and Washington would have thought of some events happening today -- the Million Man March was mentioned specifically -- I was thrown for a loop. An answer would require my delving into the minds of two men long since dead. The truth was, I had no idea what they would have done. I didn't have a clue. But as readers of this column know only too well by now, that's never stopped me before.
"I think Douglass would have asked the marchers why they didn't march themselves down to the polls in 1994 and keep Newt Gingrich and the rest of the Mean Old White Boys from taking over Congress," I answered. Douglass spent much of his post-Civil War life agitating for the right of blacks to vote. He had firsthand knowledge of the lynchings and murders of black and white Republicans by white Southern Democrats. He would be perplexed why many blacks didn't bother to show up at the polls to vote against the party they claim doesn't represent black interests. Douglass, a staunch Republican, would no doubt be puzzled at how the Democratic Party is now the overwhelming party of blacks.
But I might take Fred aside and tell him that I'm glad Newt and the Mean Old White Boys took over Congress. It's not good for one party to dominate the legislature for as long as the Democrats did. Makes 'em too cocky. Besides, black people sooner or later have to learn that when they don't vote, they get the elected officials they deserve. We should consider ourselves lucky that we got Newt Gingrich and not the second coming of the arch-racist, hang-'em-high U.S. Sen. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, who, by the way, was a Democrat, wasn't he?
It's harder to peg what the much-maligned Washington would have said. His Atlanta Compromise speech -- in which he seemed to accept second-class political and social status for blacks -- led some latter-day blacks to pin the "Uncle Tom" label on him and started a memorable debate with W. E. B. Du Bois.
Washington is viewed by some as the granddaddy of black conservatives. But, oddly enough, black nationalists also claim him. When Marcus Garvey was trying to raise money to come to the United States from Jamaica, the man he wanted to see was Booker T. Washington, who had started a successful industrial school and college at Tuskegee. Garvey certainly didn't want to talk to Mr. W. E. B.-educated-at-Fisk/Har- vard/Heidelberg-Du Bois.
Some nationalists say Washington's self-help and self-reliance message was handed down to Garvey, who then handed it down to Elijah Muhammad, who handed it down to Malcolm X. Today, some black conservatives continue the message, along with the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan -- who had the mantle passed on to him from both Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.
Washington might have addressed the hundreds of thousands at the march and given them a line from his autobiography "Up From Slavery." As a rule, I'm skeptical about autobiographies, since they tend to be heavy on the auto and light on the bio. But those black leaders still enamored with the idea of big government and who still have their lips glued to the shoes of white liberal Democrats might heed Washington's warning to avoid "a dependence on the Government for every conceivable thing."
Such blacks, Washington noted, "had little ambition to create a position for themselves, but wanted the Federal officials to create one for them." Such talk might have gotten him run off the podium by some speakers at the Million Man March, but the advice is still valid.
Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays.