Copyright © 1997 Florence Hamlish Levinsohn.All rights reserved.
In his leadership of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan representsthe most recent link in a complex historic chain of almost twocenturies, though the links do not always closely resemble oneanother. He brings together strains of the "back-to-Africa" movementthat began in the early nineteenth century; strains of the Tuskegeeself-help movement that began about seventy years later, afterEmancipation; and religious movements that include various mixturesof Christianity and Islam along with the potent notion of race pride.From their earliest years in America, when most blacks still lived inslavery, despair over the conditions of black lives had burstperiodically into efforts to relieve those conditions. While slave revoltsoccasionally erupted in the South, former slaves in the North--freedslaves, escaped slaves, and those who had been born free after theirmothers had been freed--before Emancipation forged the firstorganizational links in the chain that led, after Emancipation, to theemergence of organizations that led to the creation of the Nation ofIslam and to its most recent incarnation in the leadership of LouisFarrakhan.
The first back-to-Africa movement was the effort of freedslaves. By the time of the Civil War there were nearly half a millionfree blacks in the United States (there were nearly four million slavesat the time), most of whom lived in poverty, with none of theprivileges and rights of their white neighbors. The attraction to Africawas ambivalent for many of these people, most of whom were already more thanthird-generation Americans, more American than most whites. Andthey had grown up being taught by whites that the pagan masses ofAfrica were savages, a notion described by Mark Twain in hisjournals as one of the "many humorous things in the world ... thewhite man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages."Surely Twain found it even funnier that the blacks in this country,whose origins were in Africa, often took to heart the white man'snotions. Right from the start, no doubt as a result of white influences,the back-to-Africa movement was suffused with a Christianmissionary zeal aimed at "civilizing" the savages. On the other hand,Africa was the black homeland and represented psychological comfortand security to American blacks. For an energetic and rebellious few,the choice between life in their African homelands and life as despisedand rejected citizens in the United States was clear.
Beyond ambivalence, there was also outright opposition to theback-to-Africa movement, first by the abolitionists, notably FrederickDouglass, then later, after Emancipation, by the Tuskegee self-helpmovement led by Booker T. Washington, and then by the integrationistmovement led by W. E. B. Du Bois. But in the 1920s the emigrationmovement briefly took on mass appeal, with Marcus Garvey. And inthe 1970s there was again talk of emigration to Africa. Throughoutthese years only a handful actually crossed the ocean. Even Garveyhimself never set foot on the land he considered God's.
Although most of Africa itself in the nineteenth century was slowlycoming under colonial occupation--often brutal occupation--by theEuropeans and English, it sometimes seemed more hospitable toAmerican blacks. Most of them lived under the most repressive andbrutal slave system the world had known. Even for freed blacks, lifewas harshly discriminatory. In an account of a journey to Africa in1859, entitled A Pilgrimage to My Motherland: An Account of a JourneyAmong the Egbas and Yarubas of Central Africa in 1859-1860, RobertCampbell, a Jamaican free black who was educated and lived inPhiladelphia and held a prestigious job there--one of the blackintelligentsia of the time, an early statistician--wrote, "If I am stillasked what I think of Africa for a colored man to live and do well in, Isimply answer that with as good prospects in America as colored mengenerally [have], I have determined with my wife and children, to goto Africa to live, leaving the inquirer to interpret that reply for himself."
As early as 1811 a rare wealthy free black, Paul Cuffee (whohad taken that name as a variation on an African name, Kohfee, aGhanian name), of New Bedford, Massachusetts, who had managedto acquire a small fortune in shipping, sailed one of his ships to SierraLeone on the west coast of Africa, an English colony. Before theBritish put down their colonial flag in 1796, a British abolitionist societyhad founded Freetown in Sierra Leone in 1787, a small settlement forfreed American slaves and those rescued from slave ships. So it wasto Sierra Leone that Cuffee sailed to found his "Friendly Society fromAmerica." When he returned to the States he organized a party ofemigrants, and the next year he carried, at his own expense,thirty-eight people back to start his colony in Sierra Leone. But theeffort seems to have failed, and when Cuffee returned to the UnitedStates he proposed that a black colony be established on its southerncoast.
Meanwhile among whites there had been talk since the lateseventeenth century of creating a colony in Africa for freed blacks.Some of these designs, often among abolitionists, were altruistic--toprovide a safe, nondiscriminatory haven for freed blacks and thereby toatone for slavery. But much of the talk was far from altruistic. Manydiscussions, such as those in Virginia in 1691, when the Virginialegislature passed a law requiring slaveowners to remove any freedslaves from the area, were means to rid the country of freed blacksbecause it was feared their presence might incite rebellion on theplantation. At one point, early in the eighteenth century, aftersuccessful slave revolts and a fight for independence in Haiti at theturn of the century, it was suggested that a penal colony for rebelliousslaves be established in Africa.
Such ideas drifted around until 1816, when a group of whiteliberal clergy and some freed blacks, with the support of Henry Clay,speaker of the House of Representatives, formed the AmericanSociety for Colonizing the Free People of Color in the United States,which came to be known as the American Colonization Society. TheSociety aimed to found a colony for freed blacks in Africa, based onthe American government model.
The plan appeared to be altruistic, but, according to Africa 1995,"However noble these efforts might have appeared at the time, anunderlying reason for the action might be found in Clay's own words inwhich he counseled that such colonization would 'draw ... off' freeblacks. The response by the founder of the Society, Rev. RobertFinley, was 'We shall be clear of them.'"
With great mixed motives, then, the Society petitioned Congressin 1819 to provide funds to establish a colony. After considerabledebate Congress allocated $100,000 to transport back to Africa blacksrescued from illegal slave ships and those brought over since 1808,when the U.S. slave trade had been outlawed. But no money wasallotted for the purchase of land until 1822, when, after several failedattempts by the Society to establish colonies in Sierra Leone, theUnited States paid $300 to local African chieftains for the area thatcame to be known as Liberia.
While white missionaries and politicians were debating the meritsof an African colony for freed blacks, the freed blacks were listeningand talking among themselves. Whatever the motives of the whitesmay have been, and whether the blacks knew of these mixed motives,the idea of a colony in Africa appealed strongly to small numbers offreed blacks. Thus they welcomed the government's offer. By 1830about a thousand people had settled in Liberia. In 1847 the Free andIndependent Republic of Liberia was declared, with the capital,Monrovia, named for President James Monroe. While Liberiaimmediately received diplomatic recognition from other nations, it wasonly in 1862, under Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, that theUnited States finally recognized it. Small wonder, because in factLiberia was--and remains--the unofficial colony of the UnitedStates.
The forty or so years before the Civil War saw a steady, thoughsmall, flow of emigrants to Liberia. Eventually there were about15,000 American settlers who in some respects were not muchdifferent from other colonists who came to Africa: they largely seizedcontrol and ruled over what was then about a million indigenouspeople. Today the population exceeds 2.5 million.
In his 1974 book Marcus Garvey and the Vision of Africa, thehistorian John Henrik Clarke describes an 1852 meeting of anEmigration Convention at which one of its foremost leaders, a widelyrespected intellectual, sometimes called "the father of black nationalism,"Martin R. Delany, urged emigration to Africa to establish a colony in what isnow Nigeria. Delany said, according to Clarke, "Settle them in the landwhich is ours, and there lies with it inexhaustible resources. Let us goand possess it. We must establish a national position for ourselves andnever may we expect to be respected as men and women until wehave undertaken some fearless, bold and adventurous deeds of daring,contending against every consequence." That this educated,sophisticated, free black, himself subject to severe discrimination andvery much aware of the privations of most of his fellow blacks, hadsuch dreams of the rawest kind of colonization forces us to askwhether such ideas are bred into our nature or whether the conditionsunder which most American blacks had lived left them no alternativebut to ape their masters. Or was Delany simply naive? Did he think hecould "go and possess" a piece of Africa without harming the nativeswho lived there? Did he think those "fearless, bold and adventurousdeeds of daring, contending against every consequence" didn't includea battle to subdue the people whose land he was urging his people totake? In fact, for many years the Liberian colonists remained on thecoast, not venturing into the heavy jungles of the interior, thus notdisturbing the people who lived there. Relations between the rulingAmerican blacks and the indigenous peoples remained reasonablypeaceful. Then, early in the twentieth century, the Firestone Tire andRubber Company discovered Liberia, and the United States decidedthat the country was well situated for a variety of military operationsand communications installations. These helped the ruling Americanblacks but provided nothing for the indigenous peoples.
In the 1920s this reasonably well-settled country, thoughcompletely undeveloped, poverty-stricken, and illiterate, and ruleduneasily by the American immigrant minority at the behest of theUnited States, was thrown into turmoil by allegations that thegovernment--those freed slaves--had participated in the slavetrade. A Liberian government commission in 1929, finally investigatingthe charges, found evidence that the government had indeed beeninvolved in the widespread shipment of what was euphemisticallycalled "contract labor" to neighboring colonies ruled by whites. Thegovernment, under a new president (though still a descendant ofAmericans), survived but was generally unstable until the election in1944 of William V. S. Tubman, still another American. Tubmanintroduced important political andeconomic improvements during his long reign from 1944 to 1971, butconditions in Liberia were not notably altered. At Tubman's death in1971, his vice-president, William R. Tolbert, was named to thepresidency and then reelected in 1975. Tolbert was the first Liberianpresident to be a native of the land.
In 1979 the government was forced to announce to its very poorpopulation a rise in the price of rice, the country's staple food. Riotingfollowed. In a military coup led by native Liberians who were hostile toAmericans, Tolbert and hundreds of government officials were killed.The ensuing years were filled with government anarchy and continualstrife, both between native strongmen vying for power and betweennatives and Americans--brutal armed strife, like what was thenhappening in so many other countries in Africa. It seems that theexperience of living under brutal treatment in the United States andthen being nominally controlled by the American government for manyyears created the same kind of preparation for democratic governmentas did living under the brutal treatment of the European colonizers ofAfrica. The fulfillment of the hopes of those early freed slaves for anescape from tyranny didn't last as long as the slave trade did.
While some American blacks were forging what they believedwas the country of their salvation in Africa, many others stronglydisagreed with them. Most important among them was FrederickDouglass, the famous abolitionist leader who had escaped fromslavery in 1838 and nine years later had been enabled to buy hisfreedom. In his speeches and writings, especially his widely readabolitionist newspaper, North Star, which he published in Rochester,New York, from 1847 to 1863, Douglass continually opposed theback-to-Africa movement, insisting that it detracted from the moreimportant movement to free American slaves.
The Civil War and the promises to blacks engendered byReconstruction temporarily put an end to the back-to-Africamovement, though there were several loosely proposed plans tocreate a separate state in the United States for the freed slaves.Emancipation and then Reconstruction created such great hopes among thefreed slaves that talk of emigration to Africa was all but forgotten. Butthe end of Reconstruction in 1875 saw the destruction of those promises with awave of violence against blacks throughout the South. Semislaveeconomic arrangements for blacks were restored, and restrictive statelegislation removed the rights conferred by Emancipation andReconstruction. Gradually voting rights disappeared, total segregationwas established, and even the mildest suspicion of transgression couldlead to fierce retribution. Economic life for blacks was reduced to themost menial jobs at the lowest wages. Education, one of the greatpromises of Reconstruction, a promise valued by the former slavesalmost above all, was devastated, reduced to a shadow of its formerself, though several colleges established with help from the federalgovernment and abolitionists did survive. Now the former slaves had,just as they had before, no benefits of citizenship, but they also werewithout even the minimal protections of the slave master. They were atthe mercy of any white Southerner who chose to malign blacks in anyway. The Ku Klux Klan, which had been organized to fightReconstruction in 1866, was officially disbanded in 1869, but itsmembers continued to terrorize blacks.
As a consequence, interest in Africa began to rekindle, mainly inthe thoughts of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, the twelfth bishop ofthe African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, who was appointedby Lincoln in 1863 as the army's first black chaplain. Born into slaveryin Abbeville, South Carolina, in 1834, Turner had been freed becausehe was the son of an African king, but he was denied schooling underSouth Carolina laws that outlawed education for blacks. Afterstruggling secretly to gain his schooling, he was hired by a group oflocal white lawyers who took him under their wing and taught him thelaw, along with a general education. He joined the white MethodistEpiscopal church in 1851 and two years later was licensed to preach.Not long after, he withdrew from the white church to join the AMEchurch, and thereupon he served in black churches in Baltimore andWashington. In 1880 he was named bishop.
Turner was an idealistic, highly religious man who had beenreasonably well treated by whites and had entertained the belief that,with emancipation, blacks would be given a rightful place in society.Terribly disillusioned at the demise of Reconstruction, he turned his eye toAfrica to become for many years the leading advocate for theback-to-Africa movement. In 1891, with visions of creating newcolonies there, he established missions of the church in Sierra Leone,Liberia, and South Africa. But though he preached widely of theimproved quality of life to be had in Africa and was widely applaudedand loved, he was not successful in drawing many Americans into thefold. Whether because of the deep discouragement and fear left byslavery and the aftermath of Reconstruction; or whether, despite thehorrifying events that followed Reconstruction, the former slavesnurtured some faith they might yet prosper in the United States; orwhether, because they had been taught that Africa was a primitiveland they had been rescued from, Turner's urgings brought only slightsuccess. Despite the conditions in the South in the aftermath ofReconstruction, blacks hoped they might yet attain equal rights.Turner discouraged that hope. Like many others, he also believed thatAfricans were not quite civilized; his missions were more specificallydesigned to bring Christianity and "civilization" to African "savages"than were the earlier back-to-Africa movements--not exactly thekind of approach that was likely to succeed among many ordinarypeople.
Despite the wholesale depreciation of Africa by whites, andthough not many blacks actually went to Africa, blacks neverthelessheld a strong identification with those lands, both as homelands and, ascolonization took root, home to fellow sufferers from white oppression.Almost all of Africa lay under the rule of Europeans--oftencruel--which contributed further to a reluctance to emigrate. Manyof the black intelligentsia worked for the freeing of the Africancolonies. A variety of societies were formed to this end, and in 1900W. E. B. Du Bois led an American delegation to the firstPan-African Congress in London to "start a movement lookingforward to securing of all African races living in civilized countriestheir full rights and to promote their business interests," and "to act asa forum of protest against the aggression of the white colonizers." Nota very forceful document, this aims statement was designed to attractthe attention and support of the white liberals of the Western world.On the other hand, it was the public pronouncement of a weak,powerless group that expressed a great deal of courage and optimism.
There now arrived on the American scene a man who opposed allthoughts of emigration or even of active resistance to the powers ofwhite domination and discrimination. In response to the horrors of racehatred and persecution, he organized an anti-anti-movement. Born aslave in about 1858 in Virginia, Booker T. Washington founded hisTuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1881. There he urgedblacks to turn their energies inward, toward themselves, towardcreating for themselves some safety and security in America byperfecting manual skills they could sell to the white man or turn intotheir own profitable businesses. Thrift, patience, and industrial trainingwere the answer to the black's problems, he said. Learn atrade--become a skilled plumber, carpenter, millhand, housekeeper,dressmaker; become efficient farmers and workers to qualify in thewhite-owned business world. The Tuskegee Institute was designed toteach a wide variety of skills, from homemaking to farming.Washington was urging, in effect, a temporary second-class place inAmerican society, the best that he believed could be attained for manyyears to come.
"No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of theworld is long in any degree ostracized," he told an audience containingsome blacks but mostly whites in a speech at the opening of the 1895Atlanta Exposition. "It is important and right that all privileges of thelaw be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for theexercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in afactory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spenda dollar in an opera house." The honor of addressing such a celebratedevent, so unexpectedly given to a black, to speak at a huge city galathat attracted officials from all over the country, was won byWashington after many similar speeches in the fourteen years since hehad founded Tuskegee. He was the supreme gift to the whiteestablishment: the black leader who urged his followers to accept theiroffering gratefully.
Africa was, in Washington's mind, a foolish dream. One shoulddream, certainly, but right now it was more important to make one'sway in the world. For that one must always recognize that one mustprove his good judgment, and his disciplined ways, and hisaccomplished skills, and his undivided loyalty, so that the white manwill extend to him the rights of citizenship. Reading Washington'sautobiography, Up from Slavery, one sees that Washington sincerelybelieved his prescription would eventually pay off for blacks whofollowed him.
Ironically Washington was able to establish Tuskegee Institute in1881 because the blacks in Macon County, in which Tuskegee waslocated, still had the vote and were able to use it to extract state moneyto start the school. They exchanged their vote in 1880 for a formerConfederate colonel, W. F. Foster, running for the state legislature onthe Democratic ticket, mostly shunned by blacks, for a promise fromhim to push for a state appropriation to open a school for blacks in thecounty. Foster won, Tuskegee was established. It wasn't long beforesuch bargaining was denied the rest of Southern blacks as they lostthe vote in the white backlash against Reconstruction. In line with histheory that blacks could regain the vote only by catering to whites,Washington urged his followers to ignore voting rights. Still, at the turnof the century he himself appealed to state legislatures to revise theirconstitutions to give the vote equally to educated blacks and whiteswhile denying it to all illiterates.
Washington's 1901 autobiography betrays his wholesaledependence on the kindness of whites to provide political opportunitiesfor blacks. He says, "I think ... that the opportunity to freely exercisesuch political right will not come in any large degree through outside orartificial forcing, but will be accorded to the Negro by the Southernwhite people themselves, and that they will protect him in the exerciseof those rights. Just as soon as the South gets over the old feeling thatit is being forced by 'foreigners,' or 'aliens,' to do something which itdoes not want to do, I believe that the change in the direction that Ihave indicated is going to begin." There were, in fact, at the turn of thecentury when he wrote this book, not even vague signs that suchchanges were likely. It is difficult to decide whether Washingtonuttered such statements because he believed them or in order toplacate whites, which was true of many of his public utterances.
In his Atlanta Exposition speech, he said the words that wouldendear him to the white leadership of the nation and forever after betaken to characterize his views: "In all things purely social we canbe as separate as the five fingers, and yet one as the hand in all thingsessential to mutual progress." That Exposition speech, according to hisown account, made him a hero among whites in America. It enabledhim to raise money to support several branches of the Tuskegee Institute andto expand and improve the facilities of the main campus. The whiteestablishment adopted him as a great leader. He dined with presidents.And after initial resistance to his ideas by blacks who felt the trade-offof civil and political rights and higher education for economic securitywasn't worth it, he found a good deal of acceptance among blacks andfor many years was recognized as the major leader of blacks and afriend to whites.
Although Washington publicly continued to assert the benefits ofsecond-class citizenship until his death in 1915, there is evidence thathis views over the years became more complex. He helped fund theintegrationist W. E. B. Du Bois's research and helped obtain librariesfor several black liberal arts colleges. In his later years he apparentlychanged his mind about the efficacy of agitation over questions ofsocial equality, and he secretly filed lawsuits against segregatedfacilities and against discriminatory behavior.
Yet Washington was never a favorite of the black intelligentsia. In1903, in The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois made clear his angerat Washington for advocating the submission of blacks to second-classcitizenship. "... It is utterly impossible, under modern competitivemethods, for workingmen and property-owners to defend their rightand exist without the right of suffrage," Du Bois wrote. "He ... counselsa silent submission to civic inferiority such as is bound to sapthe manhood of any race in the long run." Despite such harsh criticismfrom black intellectuals, Washington remained a moving force,establishing branches of Tuskegee and speaking widely until he died in1915. His reputation persisted more or less intact until the 1950s, whenSouthern blacks rejected what was sometimes called "gradualism," theheart of Washington's credo, and turned to a variety of direct tactics toattain their civil and political rights. But in the North, as early as the1920s, there were some blacks for whom American civil and politicalrights were unimportant. What was important was the ability to build aseparate black world.