A History of the Civil Rights Movement, as Told by Its Pioneers

From the archives: essays written by Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois. 

The Atlantic was founded in 1857 as "a magazine of literature, art, and politics" devoted to the abolitionist cause. In the spirit of that tradition, African-American writers and intellectuals such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Martin Luther King Jr. have appeared in its pages through the years, offering distinctive answers to the same question: How can America promise “liberty and equality for all” without ending racial discrimination?

On this day in 1963, more than 200,000 people marched in Washington, D.C. with that question in mind. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of that march, we’re revisiting the articles written by four American icons who helped lead the country toward that historic moment.

Frederick Douglass

Credit: George K. Warren/National Archives

George K. Warren/National Archives

Frederick Douglass is primarily known as an abolitionist--his famous autobiography, Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, ignited abolitionist passions in the North prior to the Civil War, giving the public insight into the abominable treatment of slaves, which he had escaped as a young man. However, following the Civil War, he was also a staunch advocate of black enfranchisement. 

In December 1866, he published “Liberty and Equality for All” in The Atlantic, arguing that all African Americans must be given the right to vote:

Slavery, like all other great systems of wrong, founded in the depths of human selfishness, and existing for ages, has not neglected its own conservation. It has steadily exerted an influence upon all around it favorable to its own continuance. And today it is so strong that it could exist, not only without law, but even against law. Custom, manners, morals, religion, are all on its side everywhere in the South; and when you add the ignorance and servility of the ex-slave to the intelligence and accustomed authority of the master, you have the conditions, not out of which slavery will again grow, but under which it is impossible for the Federal government to wholly destroy it, unless the Federal government be armed with despotic power, to blot out State authority, and to station a Federal officer at every cross-road. This, of course, cannot be done, and ought not even if it could. The true way and the easiest way is to make our government entirely consistent with itself, and give to every loyal citizen the elective franchise, -- a right and power which will be ever present, and will form a wall of fire for his protection.

Booker T. Washington

Credit: Library of Congress

Library of Congress

By the end of the 19th century, 30 years after the passage of the 13th Amendment, African-Americans were still widely treated as an underclass. Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, two prominent civil-rights leaders of the era, proposed starkly different solutions to this national problem. 

In "Self-Reliance," an essay published in September 1896 with its title echoing an earlier essay of that name by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington encouraged African Americans to emulate the kind of life he promoted at the Tuskegee Institute, an industrial college for blacks in Alabama. To achieve equality, Washington suggested that African Americans must lift themselves out of poverty:

When a mere boy, I saw a young colored man, who had spent several years in school, sitting in a common cabin in the South, studying a French grammar. I noted the poverty, the untidiness, the want of system and thrift, that existed about the cabin, notwithstanding his knowledge of French and other academic subjects. Another time, when riding on the outer edges of a town in the South, I heard the sound of a piano coming from a cabin of the same kind. Contriving some excuse, I entered, and began a conversation with the young colored woman who was playing, and who had recently returned from a boarding-school, where she had been studying instrumental music among other things. Despite the fact that her parents were living in a rented cabin, eating poorly cooked food, surrounded with poverty, and having almost none of the conveniences of life, she had persuaded them to rent a piano for four or five dollars per month. Many such instances as these, in connection with my own struggles, impressed upon me the importance of making a study of our needs as a race, and applying the remedy accordingly…

…One of the objections sometimes urged against industrial education for the negro is that it aims merely to teach him to work on the same plan that he was made to follow when in slavery. This is far from being the object at Tuskegee... In a word, the constant aim is to show the student how to put brains into every process of labor; how to bring his knowledge of mathematics and the sciences into farming, carpentry, forging, foundry work; how to dispense as soon as possible with the old form of ante-bellum labor.

W.E.B. DuBois

Presented by

Chris Heller and Caroline Kitchener

Chris Heller is an associate editor at The Atlantic. Caroline Kitchener is a writer based in Princeton, New Jersey.

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