Heroic Failures

by John G. Turner

Sometimes we encounter books we wish we had been able to read ten years ago.

I used to assign my introductory students an essay that required them to analyze the respective views of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois on Reconstruction. After reading chapters from Up from Slavery and The Souls of Black Folk, listening to one or two lectures from me, and discussing the closing scenes of Birth of a Nation, they had to make a case for either BTW or Du Bois as presenting the more accurate or compelling interpretation of the time period.

Along the way, I would give them some biographical information on the two men. I had only dipped into Louis Harlan's biography on Washington, and I can't remember what I used for Du Bois, as I haven't read David Levering Lewis's book. (Our Ed Blum has since furthered my understanding of Du Bois).

If I ever revive this assignment (students found it challenging), I will be ready with a much fuller understanding of the "Wizard of Tuskegee." Robert J. Norrell, quietly in the text and forcefully in the epilogue, challenges in Up from History what he considers overly critical evaluations of Washington from contemporaries like Du Bois and influential historians such as Harlan and C. Vann Woodward. Many others have sought to at least partially rehabilitate Washington, but Norrell's biography easily surpasses previous efforts.

As other historians have done, Norrell documents Washington's longstanding commitment to full political equality for African Americans and his steadfast support for lawsuits and other relatively quiet forms of protest and activism. Norrell, though, truly excels at fully contextualizing the toxic political climate in which Washington operated. On the one hand, Washington lived in an Alabama which several well-to-do African Americans were forced to leave, often without the least provocation. Racial violence was commonplace; lynchings peaked during the years of Washington's leadership. Tuskegee's size, relative wealth, and mission always generated a certain level of resentment among local and state whites. White supremacist politicians from Tom Watson to Alabama congressman Tom Heflin aimed many of their barbs and threats directly at Washington.

At the same time, Washington's critics, increasingly including Du Bois, criticized the impotency of his leadership whenever racial violence erupted, whether in the Sam Hose lynching, the 1906 Atlanta race riot, or the 1908 riots in Springfield, Illinois. After reading Norrell's biography, it is hard not to at the very least appreciate Washington's dogged persistence under a politically impossible situation and constant stress. Under the circumstances, Norrell's "fox" did what he could and then some.

Norrell often sympathizes with Washington when describing his political battles with Du Bois and other critics, but he also recognizes Washington's own limitations: his maladroit handling of his alliance with Theodore Roosevelt, his inability to change tacks as he aged, and his awkward and unconvincing explanations for his March 1911 presence in a somewhat disreputable Manhattan neighborhood. The latter led to allegations of Washington having visited a white mistress or having engaged a prostitute.

Norrell's Up from History is expert political biography, occasionally prying inside Washington's often inscrutable mind but primarily performing the same sort of task for Washington as Michael Kazin did for William Jennings Bryan several years back. One realm Norrell presumably found inscrutable or unimportant was Washington's religious opinions. While noting Washington's rejection of overly emotional religion, he describes his faith and "cool" and "detached." The very spare treatment surprised me, partly because Washington spent so much time with white liberal Protestant donors and, I presume, worked closely with many African American allies who were more openly Christian. In some of these relationships, Washington must have expressed himself on religious matters. I thought the subject at the very least deserved more speculation.

While Washington's religiosity or lack thereof may merit more attention, I was pleased -- nearly elated -- to read the forum on Taylor Branch's civil rights trilogy in the October 2009 American Historical Review. Clayborne Carson uses materials from the sixth volume of King's Papers to flesh out King's early religious thought, suggesting that Branch might have more fully understood King's theological and political beliefs had he used such documents alongside his own later interviews. Michael Kazin, in the forum's opening essay, believes that Branch rejects "the image of the Sixties as a secular era." From Branch's book titles, portraits of religious figures, and -- more simply -- his narrative focus on a Baptist preacher, Kazin concludes that "academic historians have just begun to appreciate how central religion ... was to shaping American society in that era." A nice conclusion to see in the AHR.

Kazin's essay also briefly but persuasively contextualizes racial "backlash" within a larger story of a conservative response to the totality of King's radical socioeconomic vision. Kazin believes that Branch "misses the hard truth that, at least to date, King's more materialist and more audacious dream has not come to pass." In this reading, King -- somewhat like Norrell's Washington -- ended his life as a heroic failure.


Anonymous said…
my reading in the BTW papers is that religion was vital to his thought and, perhaps even more importantly, whites and blacks who responded to him did so with religious vocabularies. I was disappointed in the religious interpretation of BTW by Norrell - BUT, no book can accomplish everything, and I think this is an amazing one-volume biography of Washington. It should be the standard, I think.
Christopher said…
Thanks for the review, John.
John G. Turner said…
Ed, you are certainly right about authors not being able to cover everything in one book!

I couldn't help but wonder whether you thought Norrell's treatment of Du Bois was fair and/or on target. Norrell sometimes stated and frequently implied that Du Bois's attacks were petulant and disingenuous. Any thoughts?