150 Years of The Atlantic March 2006

Civil Rights & Black Identity

This is the second in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Randall Kennedy, the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the author of Interracial Intimacies, and Race, Crime, and the Law.
Civil Rights & Black Identity

Four of the most influential blacks in American history authored the Atlantic pieces that follow. Fearing that the sacrifices of the Civil War might be wasted, Frederick Douglass argued in 1866 for "a reconstruction such as will protect loyal men, black and white, in their person and property." He saw black political participation as the primary vehicle by which reconstruction could be attained and protected. Within four years of his essay's publication, black men did indeed obtain the right to vote. But in the South that right was soon subverted by fraud and violence, and within little more than a decade the brutal pigmentocracy of which he had warned had fully reemerged.

Thirty years later, Booker T. Washington articulated his optimistic—some might say naive—belief that by dint of probity, hard work, and prosperity, blacks could persuade white society to accord them respect. He maintained that friction between the races [would] pass away in proportion as the black man ...can produce something that the white man wants." Yet numerous acts of anti-black mob violence stemmed from resentment against the very sort of entrepreneurialism that Washington championed.

The final two pieces have each attained iconic status. Any well-educated collegian ought to recognize W. E. B. Du Bois's famous evocation of the African-American's dual identity: "an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts; two unreconciled strivings …" A less familiar passage, which also warrants attention, is Du Bois's clear response to the question: What does the African-American want? "He simply wishes," Du Bois insisted, "to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development."

Finally, Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter is twentieth-century America's most quoted and inspiring manifesto in defense of humane civil disobedience. Although it addressed most immediately the vexing problem of ends and means in the 1960s struggle for African-American liberation, King's polemic has gone on to enthrall audiences around the world. Nothing better animates the idea of universal human rights than his declaration that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." —RANDALL KENNEDY

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