Sunday, October 29, 2017

Kelly Miller — Radicals & Conservatives and Other Essays on the Negro in America, 1908

Radical and conservative Negroes agree as to the end in view, but differ as to the most effective means of attaining it. The difference is not essentially one of principle or purpose, but point of view.

When a distinguished Russian was informed that some American Negroes are radical and some conservative, he could not restrain his laughter. The idea of conservative Negroes eras more than the Cossack's risibilities could endure. " What on earth," he exclaimed with astonishment, " have they to conserve? "

According to a strict use of terms, a " conservative " is one who is satisfied with existing conditions and advocates their continuance; while a " radical " clamors for amelioration of conditions through change. No thoughtful Negro is satisfied with the present status of his race, whether viewed in its political, its civil or general aspect. He labors under an unfriendly public opinion, one which is being rapidly crystallized into a rigid caste system and enacted into unrighteous law. How can he be expected to contemplate such oppressive conditions with satisfaction and composure? Circumstances render it imperative that his attitude should be dissentient rather than confirmatory. Every consideration of enlightened self-respect impels him to unremitting protest, albeit the manner of protestation may be mild or pronounced, according to the dictates of prudence. Radical and conservative Negroes agree as to the end in view, but differ as to the most effective means of attaining it. The difference is not essentially one of principle or purpose, but point of view. 

All anti-slavery advocates desired the downfall of the iniquitous institution, but some were more violent than others in the expression of this desire. Disagreement as to method led to personal estrangement, impugnment of motive, and unseemly factional wrangle.

And so, colored men who are alike zealous for the betterment of their race, lose half their strength in internal strife, because of variant methods of attack upon the citadel of prejudice. Mr. Booker T. Washington is, or has been, the storm-center about which the controversy rages, and contending forces have aligned themselves in hostile array as to the wisdom or folly of the doctrine of which he is the chief exponent. The unseemly "Boston Riot," in which he was threatened with bodily violence, served to accentuate the antagonism and to deepen the line of cleavage.

Several years ago a number of New England colored men, " exotica," as some would say, of the New England colleges, having grown restive under what they deemed the damaging doctrine of the famous Tuskegeean,. founded the Boston Guardian as a journal of protest. These men declared that the teachings of Mr. Washington were destructive of the guaranteed rights and privileges of the Negro race, especially in the Northern States, and pledged themselves to spare no effort to combat his political and social heresies.

Mr. William Monroe Trotter, a Harvard graduate, who in said to have maintained a higher scholastic average than any other colored student of that famous institution, was head and front of the new movement. As promoter of the " Boston Riot " he was convicted and sentenced to the common jail. His incarceration but served to intensify his animosity.

Mr. Trotter is well suited to play the role of a martyr. He delights in a reputation for vicarious heroics. Being possessed of considerable independent means, he willingly makes sacrifices for the cause, and is as uncompromising as William Lloyd Garrison. Mr. Trotter, however, lacks the moral sanity and poise of the great emancipator. With him agitation is not so much the outgrowth of an intellectual or moral comprehension of right and reprehension of wrong, as it is a temperamental necessity. Endowed with a narrow, intolerant intensity of spirit, he pursues his ends with a Jesuitical justification of untoward means. Without clear concrete objective, such as the anti-slavery promoters had in view, he strikes wildly at whatever or whoever he imagines obscures the rights of the Negro race. He has the traditional irreverence of the reformer, an irreverence which delights to shatter popular idols. President Eliot of Harvard University, Theodore Roosevelt, and Booker T. Washington are shining marks for his blunt and bitter denunciation. He sets himself up as the moral monitor of the Negro race.

This Negro Puritan is of spotless and austere personal character, and yet he does not scruple to use the weapons of unrighteousness to promote his cherished hopes. He is equally indifferent to the allurements of culture and the blandishments of business; he has sacrificed a business career which was opening up with large prospects, in order to fight the Washington heresy. A Harvard graduate, with a class-standing that puts him easily in touch with the intellectual elite of his alma mater, he has thrown away all the restraints of culture, spurned the allurements of refined association, and conducts The Guardian with as little regard to literary form and style as if he were a back-woodsman.

By his blunt, persistent assault on Booker T. Washington he has focalized the more radical elements of the Negro race, and has made himself the most forceful personality that the Negroes in the free States have produced in a generation. He is irreconciled to his great foe. This intrepid editor saw clearly that the so-called radical Negroes were wholly wanting in organization and leadership. He chafed under the chide of having no concrete achievement or commanding personality as basis and background of his propaganda. His enemies sought to silence the loudsome pretensions of those of radical persuasion by the cry that they had founded no institutions and projected no practical projects. That the same might have been said of Garrison and Phillips was regarded as a barren rejoinder. It is difficult to found an effective organization on a protest. There is little constructive possibility in negation. 

Through the influence of The Guardian, Mr. Trotter has held together and inspirited the opposition to Mr. Washington. His every utterance leads to the Cato-like refrain: " Booker Washington must be destroyed." Conscious of his own lack of attractive personality and felicity of utterance requisite to ostensible popular leadership, Trotter began to cast about for a man of showy faculties who could stand before the people as leader of his cause. He wove a subtle net about W. E. B. DuBois, the brilliant writer and scholar, and gradually weaned him from his erstwhile friendship for Mr. Washington, so as to exploit his prominence and splendid powers in behalf of the hostile forces.

The author of the " Souls of Black Folk " is also a Harvard man, and possesses extraordinary scientific and literary talent. Few men now writing the English language can equal him in linguistic felicity. He is a man of remarkable amplitude and contrariety of qualities, an exact interrogator and a lucid espositor of social reality, but withal a dreamer with a fantasy of mind that verges on " the fine frenzy."

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