Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Looking Back To A Pivotal Secret Meeting

The violence that met the first Freedom Riders 50 years ago had been brewing by then for more than 50 years coming to a full boil as Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office as President 110 years ago and then promptly met in secret, late one night, with Booker T. Washington, a former slave and nationally recognized educator and thought-leader on race relations.

By then nearly 50 years of Republican power brokering, with heavy-handed partisan and racially driven patronage with Federal jobs, had given that party control of all but two elected presidencies following the Civil War era contributing to the hardening and re-dividing of the south nearly back to where it was at the end of that war.454px-President_Theodore_Roosevelt,_1904

It is possible that both Roosevelt and Washington agreed with the assessment of rival William Jennings Bryan that “the extremes of society are being driven further and further apart” – a statement that had been reiterated repeatedly the year before on the campaign trail.

That late night both Roosevelt and Washington were chilled by the recent news of another lynching of a black man in the south – news that had grown all too frequent over the past decade, but this time the man had been burned alive at the stake with pieces of his liver cut up and sold as souvenirs.424px-Booker_T_Washington_retouched_flattened-crop

As Republicans are doing today in legislatures across the country, southern white Democrats had renewed restrictions on voting so that less than 1 in 1000 black men could vote.

Born just two years apart, Roosevelt and Washington were bonded even before that night by an explicit faith in the meritocracy favored and epitomized by some founders like Alexander Hamilton. Roosevelt proposed and Washington agreed to support:

  • Quality vs. quantity in future distribution of patronage

  • Appointment of racially moderate whites, Democrats where possible

  • Extension of these practices for the first time north of the Mason-Dixon line.

To make good, Roosevelt’s first official act a few weeks later was to appoint, on Washington’s recommendation, Thomas G. Jones as a Federal Judge. Jones was a former Confederate Army Major (who had been wounded four times and carried Lee’s sword at the surrender of his army to then-General Grant) and a two-term former Governor of Alabama who was racially moderate for the time having promoted fair election laws and opposed lynching.

And then all hell broke loose.

The subsequent vitriolic condescension from the southern press back then rivaled today’s flood of the same by conservative pundits following the election of the first African-American as President. The vitriolic condescension today is thinly disguised by questioning his birthplace, his grades to get into Harvard and by reverse projecting, as psychologists would term it, using the ludicrous claim that President Barack Obama hates white people.

Politicians in Raleigh at the time of Roosevelt’s and Washington’s agreement were already looking down their noses at Durham for “doing things differently,” a long-held community personality trait, as they did again only recently over the issue banning digital outdoor billboards. A Raleigh newspaper editorial back then had already opined as paraphrased, “have you seen what they are doing in Durham? Whites and blacks are working side by side on the same street, like a wild west town.”

Five years before Roosevelt and Washington made that agreement, Duke University, then known as Trinity College had become the first white southern university to have a black man speak, let alone speak on racial issues, as Washington did on campus after receiving an invitation from the college’s students.

Then nine years after the meeting with Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington returned to Durham for the founding of what is now North Carolina Central University and lauded the approach the black business community was taking by making racial harmony a beacon for other communities, north and south.

Things certainly weren’t perfect in Durham then, nor today, but we’ve always done things differently and we were definitely going a different direction than much of the south.

Roosevelt and Washington, if they lived today, would each be just as controversial.

As he did just a little more than 100 years ago, Roosevelt today would be railing at members of his party who are attempting to dismantle environmental protections, strip consumer protections, disrespect labor, fuel anti-immigrant sentiments, enable greedy mega-corporations, limit early voting and in general make it harder for students and others to vote.

Washington’s philosophy would be far closer today to Dr. Shelby Steele’s as expressed in the controversial book The Content of Our Character, a title taken from Dr. King’s I Have A Dream speech, than to those who seem intent only on counting how many seats or positions they control only to discover, it doesn’t secure change.

Roosevelt and Washington firmly believed in government’s pivotal role in providing the foundation for social mobility.

Born in privilege, Theodore Roosevelt learned the importance of social mobility to making a nation great from his famously humanitarian father who believed, even in an era when the idle rich were truly idle, that everyone, regardless of a heavy work schedule, should devote one or two days a week to helping those less fortunate.

He was the first of the nation’s then 26 Presidents to be born and raised in a big city and he welcomed the cacophony of different cultures and ethnicities.

He was also the first President in the words of trilogic-biographer Edmund Morris “to mingle both Union and Confederate blood” and wanted the south, in his own words, back in “full communion.”

It is likely that during his 1896 ground-breaking speech in Durham, the first at a southern white university, that Booker T. Washington reiterated a metaphor he coined the year before and one still famously adapted today by four-time-national champion Duke Basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski to describe the importance of teamwork: “we can be separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”

Two years after the Roosevelt and Washington meetings set off such an uproar throughout the south, a white professor at the same southern white school here in Durham set off another by writing in a southern quarterly that “Booker T. Washington is the greatest man, save General [Robert E.] Lee, born in the south in a hundred years…”

Two years later, during a visit to Durham, Roosevelt praised Professor John Spencer Bassett’s courage and the university for supporting him in a speech noting the importance of academic freedom. The great man visited Durham one last time, accepting a rare honorary degree less than a year before his death in 1919.

Hopefully, we can emerge from the extremes in today’s society that seem to also be driving us further and further apart by adapting to today’s bitter partisanship and extremism the dream Washington articulated for blacks during a speech in Durham:

“We are to live in the South together, black and white, and it is sometimes helpful for us to speak directly and frankly to each other. When two races are to live in the same country, the sensible policy to pursue is to do everything that will promote good will and friendship rather than enmity and discord. In every part of North Carolina I want to see the Negro get to the point where he will not be merely tolerated in any community, but he will render such fine and valuable services that he will actually be wanted in every community.”

May God bless America with more leaders like Teddy Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington.

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